The Case of the Sin City Sendoff In Las Vegas

Table of Contents

Title Page

Contents

Copyright

Dedication

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Dedication

Untitled

THE CASE OF THE SIN CITY SENDOFF IN LAS VEGAS

A.R. WINTERS

CONTENTS

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Untitled

The Case of The Sin City Sendoff in Las Vegas

Copyright 2024 by A. R. Winters

www.arwinters.com

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only.

This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental.

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CHAPTER ONE

T

he interior of Call of Pizza was decked out in American flags and photos of the owners looking tough, both in uniform and out.

Rosie, my assistant, neighbor, and friend, was scanning the place, pointing out everything that she thought was of interest. Which was everything, because she’s the most curious person I’ve ever met, and that probably at least partly explains why she’s so dang smart, too.

“Call of dough-ty,” Rosie pursed her lips for a moment. “Hmm. I’m not sure about that one.”

“The Strong, the Brave, the Marinara,” I read off the menu. “That’s pretty neat.”

Stone, my boyfriend, read, “Bunker Buster Semper Pie, baked fresh, born ready with Army Strong sauce and fully loaded with a meat barrage. You’ll like that. We could get it with the Foxhole Field Greens?”

That sounded like a salad to me. I guessed it would look pretty on the table and provide some nice visual contrast.

“Sounds good to me,” I said and turned to Max, Rosie’s brother. “Anything caught your eye?”

Max’s eyes were gleaming with delight. Like Rosie, he was always curious, but he was more excitable than her and seemingly constantly amazed by just about everything. While Rosie would turn an intrigued but critical eye to all that she saw, Max was more like a golden retriever, constantly thinking everything was just about the best thing ever.

“I want to try the Tactical Tots and the Bread Grenades! And the Navy SEA-L-food pizza!”

“Sounds good.”

The place was only small, and it was run by two guys who kept a very tight ship. One of them was making pizzas and pouring drinks behind the bar, while the other was out serving. Stone caught the eye of the host slash server and he marched over to us, stood with his arms behind his back, and gave us a hard stare that I think was supposed to be welcoming.

“I’m Syke,” he barked. “I’ll be your Slice Sergeant this evening.”

“You’re a slice sergeant?” Max repeated. “Wow! Is that a real thing in the army?”

“No,” barked Syke.

“Oh,” Max said. “You almost recruited me there for a second.”

Syke dropped his chin a little and sized Max up in his entirety from bottom to top, slowly lifting his head as he conducted his analysis. “No. You would not make the cut.”

Max laughed and nodded. “You are so right.”

“You are,” Rosie confirmed. “Max needs his creature comforts.”

“Most people do,” Syke said. “Your orders?”

We told him what we wanted and then he marched back to the counter after telling us that our drinks would be with us in three minutes, the bread in five, and the pizzas in twelve.

“This place is the coolest ever,” Max said. “I’m going to have to thank him for his service twice when we leave.”

“We should make it a regular thing,” Rosie said. “Every Tuesday. With military rigidity. Seven o’clock, sharp.”

“Bad idea,” Stone said.

“You don’t like it?”

“I like it. But—” Stone nodded his head at Max. “—it’s him.”

“You don’t like me?” Max’s face fell like a golden retriever puppy that had been severely and unfairly scolded.

Stone did not comment on his like, or dislike, of Max. Instead, he said, “I prefer you alive.”

“Ohh, that,” Max said as he remembered that there were some seriously bad dudes out to get him. “They’ve probably forgotten all about me. Who cares about little old Max, huh?”

“They tried to shoot you,” Rosie said. “And we don’t even know who they are.”

“Maybe it was random,” Max said. “And I just got unlucky.”

“No, they also tried to run you over, remember? That’s why you came here, to Vegas, to hide?”

“Ugh. Yeah. I guess I remember. But I can’t hide forever. I need to get back out there, you know? Get back on the croquet lawn of life.”

“But you don’t want it to be a croquet lawn of death,” Stone pointed out. “You figure out who’s after you, then you get your normal life back. Not before.”

“O…kay…” Max said. Then he winked at Rosie. I saw it. Stone saw it. Rosie saw it.

“You’re free to ignore my advice if you like,” Stone said, an edge to his voice. I’d rarely seen him so angry. I don’t think Max noticed. “But I strongly recommend you don’t.”

“Noted,” Max said, miming that he was jotting it down by wiggling his hand in the air. “Your advice and help has been amazing, you’re incredible, Stone. I’m going to be super careful. I really am. I promise.”

I patted Stone on the knee to let him know that I was on his side, and he turned and smiled at me. That’s how I know he really, really likes me—Stone doesn’t dish out smiles cheaply.

“You shouldn’t be doing anything regularly,” Stone said. “No fixed schedules, no fixed routes. And you don’t let anyone know where you’re staying.”

“Relax Max,” Max said, then fell back in his seat, giggling away.

Stone sucked in a slow, deep, breath and then blew it out.

Before we could get into the topic any further, Slice Sergeant Syke returned bearing four Military Mojitos.

“What makes them military?” Rosie asked Syke, waving her mojito in the air and admiring it.

“Me, ma’am.” The slice sergeant turned and left before she could respond.

We all burst into laughter, even Stone.

“This place is the best,” Max said. “Oh! I got a great idea for them. I should tell them.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“They should give out medals to the regulars. Like, if you come ten times, you get a Purple Heart, if you’re here twenty times, you get a Medal of Freedom. Stuff like that.”

“No,” Stone said firmly, “they should not. And they will not. And I would strongly suggest you don’t tell them they should.”

Max looked confused for a moment, then shrugged. “Ohh. That stolen valor thing? Right, right, yeah, I get it. Man, these military mojitos are good, huh?”

He was right, they were, and we enjoyed them so much that we had to order a second round when our pizzas arrived.

Luckily, when we’d gone down to my car earlier, we’d found I had a flat. I just about persuaded Stone not to change it there and then, and so we got a rideshare down to this pizza place. That meant we could have a second military mojito, though Stone switched to a Barracks Brew—aka a beer—for his second.

When we were done, we headed out separately. Stone and I were going to continue a date night of our own, catching a late movie, while Rosie and Max were going to… I had no idea what they were going to do. Something nuts, probably.

“Max attack!” Max yelled before we split, and threw his arms around Stone.

Stone stood there, like a… rock, until Max had disengaged himself. Then, their ride arrived. A big black truck pulled to a stop and our friend Jan hopped out. In a sleeveless tee that showed off her powerlifter arms and tattoos, and her short hair, she looked twice as tough as Max and Rosie combined. I half expected her to tuck them one under each arm. To my disappointment, she didn’t.

“Keep them out of trouble,” Stone said.

“I’ll cuff ’em,” Jan said, very seriously.

“Hey!” Max complained.

Rosie giggled. “She’s kidding. Jan, tell him you’re kidding.”

She just gave an enigmatic smile instead.

Then our car arrived, and Stone and I headed off for some quality time, alone.

No Mom, no Nanna, no Rosie, no Amber and Angel, no Ian and Sally.

Just me and Stone.

It was perfect.

Almost.

There was still the niggling worry about Max and the people who were out to get him.

But perhaps Stone and I were just paranoid.

I sure hoped so.

CHAPTER TWO

S

ix days later it was just me and Rosie in Southern Highlands, visiting a potential new client at his home.

“Gimme the rundown again,” I asked as I watched the steel gate slide open to allow us access to the driveway.

“Felix Crane,” Rosie said. “He runs Sabertooth Development. They buy up empty plots and old rundown sites and put up swanky new stuff. He’s definitely real.”

This was something we always checked, ever since a difficult period when we were inundated with fake clients and non-existent cases. The particular troublemakers who had caused that irritating run of wild goose chases were no longer a concern, but the habit had stuck. We didn’t want to get got again.

“What else?”

“Divorced. Lives here alone best I can tell, though he’s been linked to a couple of women. I’m not sure what the case is going to be about, maybe investigating a potential business partner.”

“As long as it’s not the Lindseys,” I said, suppressing a shudder.

“No way boss, we wouldn’t have to do anything if it was them. We’ve already got all the dirt we need on them.”

“Ugh. I guess. But the less we have to do with them, the better.”

“I hear that.”

Felix opened the door in workout clothes. He was in his sixties, and he didn’t look particularly fit. He was accompanied by a much younger, serious-looking woman in a pantsuit. A quick scan of the body language told me they weren’t a couple, but they knew each other well. Family?

“Felix.” He nodded his head to the side. “And this is Lia, my niece. Come on. We don’t have long. Got to get to work.”

Felix led us into a large home office that was dominated by a desk that was too big to be practical, and old-fashioned dark wood bookshelves and furniture. The house itself was modern, but this room was decorated in an old-school style that matched his persona.

We sat down on a pair of forest green, brass-studded leather sofas, Rosie and I on one, Felix and Lia on the other. We all sat leaning forward, hands resting on our knees. No drinks were offered.

“Tell ’em,” Felix said gruffly.

“We’d like you to investigate the disappearance of my boyfriend, my fiancé. His name’s Chase Mallory and he went missing sometime late on Saturday night, the weekend before last. Nine days ago. The wedding is in two weeks.”

“He works for me,” Felix said. “That’s where they met, at a company event I held here last summer. Before Lia came to work for me.” Felix grimaced and leaned even further forward, raising his eyebrows. “Look, Chase’s absence is costing me money. We want him found. I want you to find him, and tell him, don’t worry about the wedding. If he’s got cold feet, then, whatever—but he needs to get back to work, ASAP.”

I watched Lia’s reaction carefully. She nodded along right with her uncle.

“If he really doesn’t want to marry me, then, so be it,” Lia said. “I can take it, I’m a big girl. But that’s not it, I know it’s not. He’s missing, genuinely missing. He hasn’t like… run off to Mexico or wherever, I’m sure of it.”

“But if he has run off to Mexico, or wherever, we want you to find him and drag him back,” Felix said. “Tell him the wedding’s off but the work isn’t.”

Rosie and I looked at each other. Felix and Lia wouldn’t know it, but we were asking each other if we thought we should take the case, or nip it in the bud now. We were both interested. I turned back to Felix.

“Tell us about Saturday night, please. I assume he wasn’t at home with you, Lia?”

Felix snorted. Something other than his disappearance was funny.

Lia bobbed her head at me and quickly licked her lips.

“That’s right. It was his bachelor party. He had a suite booked in the Tremonte for the whole weekend, Friday to Monday morning. I last saw him around Friday lunchtime when he left the office.”

“You all work together?”

“Lia’s my office manager,” Felix said. “I let Chase clock out early on Friday, so he could meet his buddies at the hotel. You only get married once, right?” Felix furrowed his brow a moment, thinking about his own life experience. “It’s a big thing, anyway, that’s what I’m saying. So I cut him some slack. Half a day off on Friday.”

“And you didn’t see him after that?” I asked Lia.

“No.”

“I did,” Felix said. “On Saturday. I dropped by the hotel to see how he was doing, and have a quiet drink with him in the bar.”

“Yeah? How was he?”

“You know. Hungover, trying to get drunk again. That’s how it goes, right?”

Rosie and I both shrugged.

“Anyway, he was just getting through his hangover. I left him when a buddy of his from college arrived.”

“Just one buddy?” I was a bit confused. Why was he only with one friend?

“Ah. Yeah,” Felix said. “The rest were up in the room, in the suite, getting it ready for a room party. Chase came down to catch up with me and meet another buddy or two who were just dropping by for a drink, not doing the whole weekend. So most of his friends were up in the room.”

“Who was he with?” Rosie asked. “In the room, I mean.”

“His college friends.” Felix was talking, but Lia grimaced at the mention of them. “They call themselves The Boys.”

“Got any names?”

Lia sighed, audibly, and with some irritation. “They’re a bunch of do—.” She stopped herself and cleared her throat. “They’re very boyish would be a polite way of putting it. They use nicknames. They call each other alcohol names like… Budweiser, or whatever. Jack Daniels. I don’t know, names like that. Chase was called Captain Chase, after Captain Morgan rum, I don’t know what the others are called.”

“You don’t hang out with them?”

“No, I don’t.”

She was quite certain about that and I sensed a history there—she didn’t like them.

“Do you know what room they were staying in?”

Felix and Lia both shook their heads.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “I can find that out. I’ve got contacts at the Tremonte. The owner’s a friend of mine.”

Felix sat up straighter, his eyebrows lifting in surprise. “Jack Weber? You know him?”

“Yeah. Like I said, he’s an old friend, so’s his wife. If you want someone to work on a case at the Tremonte, you pick the right people. You mentioned someone else? At the bar?”

“Right. Yeah, another one of his college buddies. I don’t know his name. Wasn’t interested. I left after he arrived.”

“Okay. Do you know if Chase had any arguments recently? Particularly with his friends—but anyone else, too?”

Felix and Lia exchanged a look, and then they both shrugged. “He might have done,” Lia said. “But I don’t think so. I don’t know why he would. He was in a good mood when he left the office.”

“Okay,” I said and waited to see if they had any other leads for us.

Lia opened her mouth as if to say something then closed it again.

“What is it?” I pressed. “Tell us anything you think might be relevant—even if it’s just background information. Anything can help.”

“Okay, there’s this girl, Jasmine. Chase used to date her and…” She paused and licked her lips again. “She didn’t get over their breakup very well.”

“Yeah?” I said. “How bad are we talking?”

“She’s a bit of a bunny boiler,” Lia said. “Like… she keeps calling him? All the time? Even though it’s a couple of years since they broke up. He changed his number a few times, but she always tracked it down again. He gave up changing numbers, so now he just doesn’t answer her anymore. Blocks her number every time she gets a new one.”

“But it sounds like you don’t think Jasmine could be connected to his disappearance?”

She shook her head. “She likes him, she’s not going to do anything bad to him, I’m sure. And…” Lia sighed. “I saw her, outside our office, the other day. Parked on the other side of the street in her old beat-up car, just watching, y’know?”

“So?” I thought I knew what she meant but I wanted to make sure.

“It’s not the kind of thing you do if you have someone locked up in your basement or whatever. She was looking for him, like usual. When she saw me spot her she ducked her head down like I hadn’t already seen her. I started walking over, I wanted to ask her when the last time she saw Chase was. Maybe she’d seen him since Saturday night, y’know? But she drove off when she saw me coming.”

“That could be useful. Let us know if either of you think of anything else like that. The more we know about Chase and the people who knew him, the more avenues we’ll have to explore.”

We prodded them with a few more questions, and then we officially took the case and signed the paperwork. Rosie had put our contracts onto an iPad, and I felt very modern when we got Felix to sign using his finger on the screen.

“You’re not all computers and doodads, right?” Felix said. “I want someone who pounds the pavement, too.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “We’re very hands-on.”

“Tiffany finds it more interesting to go out and meet people than do everything from behind a computer screen,” Rosie added.

“Good,” Felix said grouchily.

Just as we were standing up to leave there was a loud slam from the entranceway and Felix’s look darkened.

“One moment.” He held a finger in the air behind his back as he hurried out of the room. The index finger, I mean.

“Misty’s back,” Lia said under her breath, more to herself than us.

“Who’s that?” Rosie asked.

“Felix’s daughter,” Lia said. “She lived with her Mom, out in Ohio, until she graduated high school. Then she decided Las Vegas was more fun and moved in. She’s been here for over a year now. Felix was delighted when she first arrived. Now…”

We heard raised voices from the entranceway. Rosie and I headed that way. Totally for detective reasons, not because we’re nosy. Yep. That’s it.

“We gotta get going,” I said absently to Lia as we headed back out toward the entrance.

“Dad, I’m an adult! You can’t talk to me like that!” A young woman’s voice, loud and angry.

“Like heck I can’t! You’re living under my roof, you follow my rules. You want to live like a tramp, you can go and do it somewhere else.”

“Dad!”

We hovered on the edge of the entrance hall. A young woman, her cheeks flushed, was holding a pair of heels in one hand. She was around twenty, with long, sleek black hair and she was wearing a short, tight dress—it was most definitely more of a Friday night dress than a Monday morning one. On her face were the smudged and smeared remains of heavy makeup, and she was breathing hard, her eyes wide.

“You can’t stay out all night. It’s a Monday morning, Misty! Monday.”

The girl’s face was getting redder. “IT WAS A LONG BRUNCH!”

The girl stomped toward the stairs that glided up from the entrance hall to the floor above.

“Keep it up and you’ll have to find somewhere else to live!”

“Fine!” she yelled as she ascended the stairs in a huff. “I’ll move in with my friends!”

“And how’ll you pay the rent?” Felix called. “Huh? Got a job yet?”

“YOU’LL have to pay if you kick me out!”

“Oh no, I won’t!”

Rosie nudged me. “It’s like a soap opera.”

“Or a drama,” I said.

“We’ll discuss this tonight!” Felix yelled as Misty disappeared.

“I’m going out tonight!”

“No, you’re not!” When there was no answer, Felix shouted again, “You hear me? I said no you’re not! You better be here when I get home!”

Silence.

Felix was staring up the stairs when we made our presence known.

“We better get going,” I said as we walked toward the door.

Felix’s shoulders fell as we approached, and his deep breaths became a sigh. He didn’t quite meet our gaze, he was embarrassed. He was the kind of person who was used to getting his own way—but it didn’t work with his daughter and he didn’t know how to deal with it.

“That your little girl?” Rosie asked, giving him a squeeze on the shoulder.

“Not so little,” Felix said, still looking down at the floor. “I don’t know what to do with her.”

“She’s just trying to find her place in the world,” Rosie said. “I was just like her when I was her age.”

She was? I figured Rosie was probably a bookish nerd when she was a teen, but then Rosie was always surprising me.

“Yeah? Would you stay out all night? On a Sunday?”

“Oh, yeah. One time, the Air and Space Museum had a stargazing sleepover. It was supposed to be for younger kids, but I managed to snag a spot as a volunteer. My parents were so mad.”

“I don’t think Misty was in a museum all night,” Felix said darkly. “I don’t know where she was. I don’t wanna know.”

“And I ran away from home, too.”

She did?

“Yeah?”

“Yep. Ran away to join NASA. Turns out, doesn’t matter how smart you are, you can’t just show up and apprentice your way up. They really want you to have gone to college and all. Go through a recruitment process. That kinda stuff.” Rosie shrugged again. “Their loss!”

“If Misty ran away to find work, I’d be dancing in the streets,” Felix said. “Speaking of running away…” He looked over our shoulders to make sure Lia wasn’t right there. “You look into that. I know Lia says she doesn’t think Chase ran, but sometimes guys get cold feet before they get married, y’know? Maybe he had a few drinks, had a think, and got on a flight to Asia or Europe or South America.”

“We’ll find him, wherever he’s gone,” I said. “There’ll be a trail. You can’t just disappear, not in the modern world.”

“Yeah. Good. And get it done quick. If he’s not coming back, I need to know so I can make some decisions.”

“In the office?” I said.

“Yeah. He’s supposed to be my right-hand man. But if he’s not, someone else needs to be.”

“What about Lia,” Rosie suggested.

Felix snorted. “I said right-hand man.” He took a step back, and looked at us again. “No offense.”

Lots taken.

“We’ll be in touch.”

CHAPTER THREE

W

hen I called up Jack and asked if we could meet he was ecstatic. Told me he wanted to see me, he had a case for me. I asked if it was a missing guest, and it turned out it was, so I wasn’t even calling in favors.

I don’t mind asking my friends for help, but I don’t want to ever feel like I’m using them. With Jack’s power, wealth, and influence I was always more wary about asking him for help than I was with my less billionaireish buds. But fortunately, he was interested in the same case, and the way he put it, I’d be doing him a favor. Score.

After being whisked up to Jack and Emily’s penthouse suite in one of the VIP elevators, a butler welcomed us into their luxurious home. Approximately a zillion times bigger than my apartment, it commanded views down the Strip from almost every room.

Emily, Jack’s wife, was also a good friend of mine. She worked as a homicide detective for the Metro police, and she had the morning off from work—something about the department trying to cut down on all the overtime hours it was paying out. When we arrived she ran over and gave me a hug that almost felt like she was trying to hurt me. But no, she was just in a good mood. She gave Rosie a playful punch on the arm by way of hi.

My friend grabbed me by the hand and tugged me toward the huge living area, Rosie following behind. This huge, open-plan section of the apartment suite had double-height ceilings—maybe triple?—and it was large enough to hold, if not quite a ball, a pretty extravagant party.

“I’ve got someone to show you!” Emily said, hurrying us along.

“Is it baby Jack Junior?” I guessed, grinning.

“Huh? Oh, no, he’s at yoga with the nanny and his grandma. It’s someone who really missed you.”

There was a curious bark and then a bouncing ball of fur bounded and leaped her way across the room before standing and pressing her paws up against me.

“Bridget!” I yelled. “It’s so good to see you!”

Bridget agreed and nuzzled and licked and head-butted me over and over and over while Jack was walking over to join us. Every now and then Bridget went down back on all fours and bounced a circle around me before putting her paws up on me again.

“Good afternoon,” Rosie said to my dog. “I’m Rosie.” Bridget tilted her head at Rosie, then bashed her head against her in a friendly greeting. “Your name’s Bridget?”

Being a dog, she wasn’t so great at talking, so I took over.

“Yeah, she’s my dog,” I said. “I mean, she was. I rescued her after a case. But it turns out, our apartments aren’t suited for dogs, at least not any bigger than pocket-sized ones. Also, they’re against the rules.”

“She was evicted from our building?”

“Yep, pretty much. Jack took her in, but then we decided that Jack’s mom’s place was an even better fit—she’s got a huge yard and stuff.”

“That’s the disadvantage of living in an apartment,” Emily said, looking around her palace. “No backyard.”

Jack wrapped an arm around Emily’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

“Just say the word and we’ll move to the ’burbs.”

Emily grinned and shook her head. “There are a lot of advantages to living in a five-star hotel as well.”

Jack winced, looking a little pained. “We like to say we’re six-star now, remember?”

“Sorry, dear,” she said, giggling and then poking him in the arm

Rosie lifted her head toward the ceiling. “What about a roof garden?”

“But then where would Jack park his helicopter?” I said to Rosie.

Jack laughed. “It’s not mine, it’s the resort’s. But actually, we’re doing something up there. The Tre-house Club and Bar.”

“On the roof?” I said. “But—then, where are you actually going to park your helicopter?”

“On top,” Jack said. “About half the rooftop is going to be a fancy cocktail bar and club—Strip views, all that. Then there’s going to be a dance floor that extends from the indoor section to outdoors, when the weather permits. Dancing under the stars is very trendy right now. Anyway, the new helipad’s going to be on the roof of the new indoor part. I was worried that it might put people off, but the developer says that people find helicopters exciting so they won’t mind the noise? He says getting to watch the helicopter swoop in and land will make up for it.” Jack shrugged. “The flights aren’t that frequent at night when it’ll be open anyway. Usually we shuttle people in during the morning and early afternoon.”

“So no backyard on the roof,” Rosie surmised.

“Afraid not,” Jack said. “So we really might have to move to that house in the suburbs.”

Bridget hadn’t stopped nuzzling me the entire time, and as Jack led us to sit down near the floor-to-ceiling windows, she stayed by my side. When we sat, she leaped up onto my lap. While she’s not huge, she’s not a lapdog either, and I could really feel her weight as she tried to curl up on top of me. It was pretty uncomfortable, but in a nice way.

“So. Chase Mallory,” Jack said. “I was considering hiring you to look into his disappearance, but my hotel manager says it’s not our concern, that it’s his family’s job to look for him.” Jack shrugged. “I let it slide, but now I know you’re on the case anyway…” Jack held up his palms. “Let’s work together, yeah?”

“That’s perfect,” I said. I turned to Emily. “Your people got anything?”

She worked in homicide, but I figured she’d probably at least had a poke around to see what the Metro police were doing about Jack’s missing guest.

Emily shook her head. “It’s just a missing persons case, and in Vegas… you know how it is. There’s a lot of them. I don’t think anything’s been done except put out a notice to look for him. So, hey, less competition for you.”

I thanked her and turned back to Jack. “What can you tell us?”

“He was here with a group of guys. They’re in their thirties, but they were acting like college kids. Vegas brings that out in people for some reason. I guess bachelor parties do as well. The last time he was seen was on the Saturday night, and it was the next day, Sunday afternoon, when one of his buddies made an inquiry at the front desk to ask if we’d seen him. Weird thing to ask the front desk since they were supposed to be staying with him. They were drunk, of course. Turned out, they’d lost him the night before and not seen him since.”

“And they didn’t make a fuss earlier?”

“I think they were too busy enjoying themselves to notice or care that the person who was the reason for them all being there was missing.”

“That’s terrible,” I said.

“Yep. I didn’t meet them, but from what I hear, they’re terrible people. That’s what the staff who met them said.”

“CCTV?” I asked.

“Right. So, about that. Two things. One, we have a lot of cameras. Like a lot.”

“What’s a lot?” I asked. “A hundred—” I stopped myself, thinking of the size of just the casino floor, and then adding in the hotel and the rest of the resort. “Scratch that. Five hundred…? A thousand?”

Jack chuckled. “You wish. More like five thousand.”

“FIVE THOUSAND?” Rosie near-shouted.

“Sound like overkill?” Jack said.

“It’s hard to comprehend,” I said. “Man, imagine if they still used videotapes. You’d fill a warehouse a week.”

“I know, right? But it’s a lot. It’s not just security who use them, but operations, and the casino and…” Jack shook his head. “I can’t keep track of it all.”

“That’s why you have managers.”

“Yep. Anyway, the place is covered in them. The casino, the bars, restaurants, hallways, concessions, elevators. The grounds, the parking lots, the service access.”

“I feel like there’s a but coming.”

“There is. Two. That sheer number of cameras is the first of the ‘buts’—it’s a lot of footage to go through, trying to look for one guy. We can run face recognition on some of the feeds—my casino team is big on that. But we have different systems in the rest of the resort, they’re a few years older. They’re not hooked into that same system.”

“So there’s an insane amount of footage. It’ll be no good to us unless we know where and when we’re looking.” Jack’s eyebrows lifted and his chin dipped to confirm my thoughts. “And there’s another but too?”

“Yeah. And this is the thing that made me concerned, it’s why I initially was going to call you up. The thing is, a few of our cameras went down on Saturday. The feeds were blank. And—yeah, you guessed it—the cameras that cover the hallway outside the bachelor party suite room were a couple of them. And not just them, but also a couple more stairwell cameras in one of the sets of fire stairs.”

“Suspicious,” I said.

“Yep. Security flagged it immediately and we had people in on Sunday to take a look. Now, like I said, we’ve got a ton of cameras, so it’s not out of the question for them to need replacing. It happens pretty regularly because we’ve got so many. A couple of times a week one of the older ones will pop its clogs. The ones on the fire stairs were older units, so maybe a failure there, or even two, wasn’t totally out of the question. But the ones in the hallway ceiling were only a couple of years old, they shouldn’t have gone out.”

“Were they smashed?” Rosie asked.

“No,” Jack said. “More interesting than that. When the security company went to replace them, it turned out there was nothing wrong with them. Nothing wrong, except their lens had been covered with black spray paint. Completely blacked them out.”

“Oh, that’s not good,” I said.

“I know, right? Now, remember, this was before we even knew someone was missing. I wasn’t even informed initially—I don’t get told about every little breakage, obviously. The black paint over the lens was interesting though, so my team let me know about that when they discovered it.”

“Makes sense,” I said.

“Yep. Like any other day, I had another dozen fires to put out so it was just a point of interest at the time. Something for security to look into. A few days later, I heard we had a missing guest. If it had been a kid or something I would have been informed much earlier, but a thirty-something dude? If I got a call every time one of them went on a bender and forgot where his hotel was I’d never get any sleep. So it wasn’t until about Wednesday, when the guy’s fiancée started kicking up a fuss—and more than a couple of nights had passed—that it made its way up the chain to me.”

“And the police had already been informed?”

“Yeah. The bride reported him missing on the Monday I think, when he didn’t show up to work. I found out about it on Wednesday. Checked the room number… realized the suite was on the hallway with the blacked-out cameras. That got me suspicious, right?”

“Right. I bet it did.”

“Yeah. So, I had my guys send that information over to the case officer for the missing people report, but I didn’t hear anything back. Em thinks they’re overwhelmed and a thirty-year-old dude maybe doing a runner just before he’s due to get married is low priority.”

“And do you know what time the cameras were knocked out?”

“Yeah, sometime on Saturday afternoon. A few hours before Chase was last seen. My guys went through the footage, but they couldn’t catch who did it, the screen just went black. Whoever did it approached from out of the line of sight each time, carefully, and they couldn’t figure out a likely suspect from other feeds.”

“Okay. But we’ll be able to check footage from the rest of the system if we need to?”

“Absolutely. Hold on.” Jack reached into his pocket and then handed me a plastic card. “This is an employee and contractor card. It’s registered with your name and your details. Have them scan it in the security office and you’ll be good to go. I let them know you’d probably be coming and they’ll have someone to assist you. But you’re going to need to know the precise location and time you want to examine if you want to look at footage because, like we said, it’s needle in a haystack territory otherwise.”

“Got it. Do we know anything else about our missing guy? Em?”

Emily leaned forward in her chair, rubbing her hands on her knees.

“A little. He had an arrest record from when he was back in college. Disorderly conduct, fighting, stealing a golf cart from a retirement community, underage drinking. Standard fratboy stuff. Nothing recent. Legally speaking, he’s cleaned up his act.”

“Okay. And do you have the room booking details?”

Jack did, and he had it neatly printed out for us. We received a name, address, and phone number for a guy called Wolfgang Jones who we assumed was the leader of the group that Lia had called The Boys.

“If there’s anything else, just let me know. Always willing to help.”

“You guys hungry?” Emily asked. “Elwood’s coming over for lunch. I had the morning off but I’m working this afternoon. He’s picking me up so we’re giving him lunch.”

Yes, I was hungry, but did I want to have lunch with Elwood, of all people? The short answer to that question was no, I didn’t.

“Yes!” Rosie shouted. “We haven’t eaten since breakfast. I bet you’re hungry, aren’t you, boss? I’m famished!”

“Sure,” I said, faking up some enthusiasm. “It’ll be great to catch up with Elwood.”

We just had time for a pre-lunch soda before Elwood arrived, surrounded with an aura of pure grump, as he stomped across the room from the door, ignoring the splendor of the place. Elwood came to a stop in front of me, stared at me and Bridget a moment, and then fell onto the sofa opposite. I hadn’t stood to greet him because the fluffy anchor that was Bridget kept me securely in place.

Bridget looked up at Elwood, tilted her head, whined a little, and then put her head back down on my hand as if she needed comforting. I ran my thumb over her soft head. I missed her. Maybe if Stone and I got a—

Whoah. Where’d that thought come from? Focus, Tiffany, Focus.

“Nice place, isn’t it?” I said to Elwood to stop the scary voice in my head from continuing.

Elwood looked around as if bored by it. “It’s okay.”

“Look at the view,” I said, nodding down the Strip.

Elwood wrinkled up his face. “Ugh. Makes me think of work.”

“I thought you liked work?” Rosie said.

Elwood considered that for a moment. “I like dead bodies. They don’t say stupid things.”

“Pretty often the reason they’re dead is because they did say stupid things,” I pointed out.

That—of all things—made Elwood smile, but it might have been a scowl. I don’t think he differentiates.

“Justice, in all its glory,” Elwood said and chuckled. Sometimes, when I forget how good of a detective he is, I worry that he might be a psycho. Then again, perhaps that’s what makes him a good cop.

“Is your place like this?” Rosie asked him with a curious smile.

“What?” Elwood barked.

“Where you live,” Rosie said. “Emily’s your partner, and she lives here. I just wondered if your place was similar…?” She stared at him with wide-eyed innocent wonder.

Elwood smacked the palm of his hand into his head, grabbed at his thinning hair, and just shook his head.

Apparently, the homicide cop’s salary didn’t run to a luxury penthouse apartment, larger than most houses, inside a six-star hotel. Who woulda known, huh?

I glanced at Rosie to make sure she hadn’t lost her mind. She winked at me and grinned. Ah. She was playing the old classic game: Wind Elwood Up and Try to Make His Head Explode. There’s a reason it’s a classic.

Unfortunately, the game didn’t get very far. It was time for lunch, and Jack’s chefs had prepared the kind of steak-and-potatoes meal that Michelin stars were invented for.

It was so ridiculously good that even Elwood smiled when he tried the fresh-flown-in Wagyu steak with Tremonte Hasselback Potatoes.

He almost looked happy for a moment.

Almost.

CHAPTER FOUR

R

osie and I decided to do a little walk-through to check out the site of the disabled cameras and the hallway outside Chase’s suite. After that, we were going to meet The Boys in the evening. Hopefully, between a look around and a meeting with Chase’s old college friends and bachelor party partners-in-partying, we’d get this thing tied up in time for a cupcake before bed.

It’s good to be optimistic, right?

We stood at one end of the hallway, scanning for the cameras. While they weren’t completely hidden, they were very subtly placed beside recessed light fittings, their tiny lenses only just visible. People don’t like knowing they’re being watched, so it made sense.

We stood underneath one of them.

“Look, you can see the black paint on the ceiling still,” Rosie said, her arm outstretched and finger pointing toward the fitting. “They’ve tried to rub it off but there’s still some there.”

“Yeah. And I guess that’s a new camera. Must have been easier to swap it out than clean the paint off the old one.”

We looked down the long, brightly lit hallway. This floor of the resort contained only larger suites, so there weren’t many rooms compared to the lower levels of the hotel. We stood outside the bachelor party suite, looking at it for a moment. Nothing special. It looked just like all the others, with no sign that anything untoward had happened.

“Anyone entering or exiting the room wouldn’t have been caught on camera,” I said.

“But they would have been on the elevator cameras,” Rosie said. “If they’d ridden them.”

“Which they didn’t,” I said. “Because…”

We walked down the hallway to the fire door at the far end. It opened onto a bare, echoey, flight of stairs, brightly lit with fluorescent lights that flickered to life the moment motion sensors detected us. The air was cool and smelled slightly of dust. It seemed to ring with silence while we were still, but when we moved or spoke the sound echoed up and down the bare stairwell.

“…they must have used these stairs,” Rosie said. “Shall we retrace their steps?”

“Might as well,” I said. “Though we might need to stop to refuel by the time we make it to the bottom.”

“Ooh, is it nearly cupcake time?” Rosie asked.

“I think it might be. The Atrium café downstairs does some pretty awesome baked goods. Come on, let’s do this.”

We were on the eighteenth floor, and there were four short flights of stairs going back and forth between each level. We began the descent. That meant there were… four multiplied by eighteen… approximately a million flights before we’d make it to the ground. At least we were starting from up high and going down instead of attempting the reverse, which I figured would be literally impossible without some divine intervention. Or someone to carry me.

“Jack said there are only cameras on every fifth level,” I said. “Because the doors leading into the stairwell are covered by the hallway cameras on every floor, making a second one on the inside of the door largely redundant. The ones in the stairwell are just to monitor traffic during an evacuation.”

We walked down to fifteen and spotted a shiny brand new camera with a protective glass dome over it.

“That’s one they knocked out,” I said. Like the units in the hallway above, there were still marks from black spray paint around it.

Rosie raised a hand and happily waved up at the lens as if someone might be watching this specific camera out of the five thousand spread across the resort.

Slim chance.

We both nearly jumped out of our skin when a disembodied voice said, “Hey!”

The voice was deep, and it echoed up and down the stairwell.

“Argh!” Rosie shouted.

“Sorry if I gave you a fright! This is Miller, from security. Mr. Weber told me what you’re doing, and I was just taking a look-see. He wants me to help you any way I can.”

“I didn’t know you had speakers and microphones,” Rosie said, her voice halting and weak, the unease clear in her tone. It’s weird talking into the air without even the reassuring presence of some headphones, or a visible mic to direct your words.

“Yeah, neat huh? I’ll show you our setup sometime. Talk about reality TV! We have speakers so we can issue reassurance and instructions in case of emergency. Usually, they’re all linked together, but I can separate out individual speakers, too. It’s pretty cool. If you need anything, just yell. I’ll keep an ear open for the next lil’ while. Good luck!”

We continued our descent.

“That would be so neat for playing pranks,” Rosie said. “You could do a pretty good haunting, right? Pipe some spooky whistling sounds down through the speakers, some disembodied voices whispering.”

“I think the only time these stairs get used is during an emergency,” I said. “Probably not the best pranking time.”

“No, probably not,” Rosie said sadly.

We passed level ten, where there was another new camera. Rosie glanced at it but didn’t wave this time. We’d had enough spooky voices. Again, we saw traces of black spray paint. We continued past five, and then finally down to one.

We’d kept our eyes open for clues, but unfortunately, there were no dropped handkerchiefs, business cards, or fingerprint-coated cans of soda. Nothing except slight traces of dust.

The stairs ended in a service hallway. There was a large bright green fire exit sign pointing to the right, where there was a door that led outside. There was a smaller sign pointing to the left saying ‘lobby’.

We turned to the right. If someone bundled Chase down these stairs, they probably didn’t take him into the lobby. We pushed the door open and stepped out onto a service road that ran down the side of the hotel.

“Cupcake, ma’am?”

I stared. There was a waiter, dressed up like a butler, holding a silver platter with four cupcakes on it.

“Where’d…?”

“The Atrium café received an order from the security department, ma’am. I was instructed to deliver cupcakes to outside this fire exit, ma’am.”

“Oh. Uh, that’s neat. Thank you!”

We snagged two each.

“Do you do this often?” I asked the server before he left.

“Deliver cupcakes to service alleys?” He paused as if he needed a moment to think. “No, ma’am. Would you like anything else?”

“Uh, no, thanks.”

“Very well.”

The butler-waiter walked stiffly away, still carrying his now empty silver platter aloft on the palm of his hand.

“I guess Miller heard us mention the cupcakes,” Rosie said, just before biting into one. “Mmmhmmmhmmmpf.”

I wasn’t sure what the last thing she said was, but I nodded in agreement anyway. I’m pretty sure it was about just how fresh, fragrant, and sweet the strawberries were in her cake of choice.

I bit into mine, a blueberry cream cheese piece of culinary art that was beautiful enough to stand atop a plinth in a museum.

It tasted even better.

T

he Boys were meeting to talk about their missing friend and share news with each other. Though, actually, I got the impression that they just wanted an excuse to meet and be merry. If Chase hadn’t been missing they’d probably be having another pre-wedding celebratory drink.

Rosie and I were parked in my car in the parking lot of Tipsy Tim’s, discussing the case before we went in.

“So these guys claim they didn’t see their friend that night,” Rosie said, “but, we know the cameras on the floor and in the stairwell were disabled. One in the service road, too. So what do we think? Someone waited outside the elevator, and when Chase popped out, they bundled him down the stairs before he could make it to the room?”

“That’s my best guess,” I said. “It wouldn’t make sense that he would go to the trouble of disabling the cameras if he just wanted to do a runner. Why bother? No, something happened to him, and there’s a reason the cameras were disabled. And if he really didn’t make it to the room, then he must have been targeted between the elevator and the room door. Maybe we’ll come up with something else when we meet these guys.”

Tipsy Tim’s was the kind of bar that focused on providing value for money. Which is a polite way of saying it was a dive that targeted people who preferred quantity rather than quality when it came to drinks.

We scanned the place when we entered and I knew exactly where we needed to go. There was only one group of people who looked like they might call themselves The Boys and nickname themselves after types of liquor. They were a group of six guys, already rowdy. There were two pitchers of beer on the table and… eighteen, I estimated, empty shot glasses.

“Detective chicks!” yelled one with an air of leadership about him. Must have been the guy I spoke to on the phone, the person who booked the room: Wolfgang Jones. He was a thirty-something who looked like a forty-something with a red nose, dry skin, and a glint in his eye—but not the good one. It was a glint that made him look cunning, or sinister, like he was scheming something.

The other five were of a similar sort. In their thirties, but looking a little older due to the ravages of their hard life, or, rather, a life lived hard—aka drinking way too much for way too long.

“Detective chicks!” the rest of them each repeated, laughing, like it was absolutely hilarious.

Ugh.

I decided I hated them already, then I took a deep breath and told myself not to make snap judgments. Then I changed my mind again and decided that, actually, gut instincts were the way to go.

A short pudgy member of the group stood up quickly, knocking his chair over in the process.

“Whoah!” He snatched it back up. “Ladies…” he reached to the table behind him where a couple were having a quiet conversation. He jerked his chin at them, slapped his hand on the backs of the two unoccupied chairs, and said, “Ya mind?”

The couple shook their heads, and Rosie and I were provided with chairs. The Boys scooted around and I found myself pressed up against Wolfgang on one side, and Rosie on the other.

“I’m Tiffany, this is Rosie.”

“Jäger!” said Wolfgang. “Patrón,” said the chair-giver. “Jimbean”, “Walker, “Goose,” “Cuervo” were the rest.

“Cute,” I said, stating the exact polar opposite of the truth, “but we’ll need your real names as well. You can give them to Rosie.”

“Hey, I never give my one-off chicks my real name,” Walker said.

“Yeah, because you don’t want them coming round and making your wife mad!” Wolfgang aka Jäger said.

“True that!” Walker agreed while the rest descended into uproarious laughter.

Gah! These guys were the worst.

Jäger slapped his hand on my knee. “So, what do ya wanna know?”

I really wasn’t feeling that vibe.

“Take your hand off my knee or I’ll shoot you in the face.”

I wasn’t even sure if I was bluffing. I guess he wasn’t, either, because the hand disappeared and his chair scooted a little away from me.

“Feisty!”—Jimbean

“Spicy!”—Walker

“Fiery!”—Goose

“Me gusta me chicitas with a dose of chili! That’s hot!”—Cuervo

Jäger, aka Wolfgang, held up his palms. “Hey, just being friendly, we’re friendly guys, aren’t we?”

“Heck yeah!”, “Yep”, “Sure are!”.

As if to emphasize his point, Wolfgang put an arm around the guy next to him and gave him a nasty squeeze that made his eyes bulge.

We settled them down, and Rosie took down their names after collecting ID cards from them to get the details. I had a feeling we’d have to put up with a lame joke from each of them otherwise and we’d spend half the night here.

We managed to get them to stop being too obnoxious or offensive and calm down for a bit, and we got to work. They nominated Wolfgang to do the talking while the rest would chip in if they had something relevant to say.

“When was the last time you saw Chase?”

“Must have been between five and six in the afternoon. We’d all been in the casino, and then Chase went to the bar. He was meeting some loser from college, and his future father-in-law. We went upstairs to get the room ready.”

“Ready?” Rosie asked. “For what?”

“Ready to parrrr-tayy!” said ‘Walker’.

“What does that entail?” Rosie pressed.

“It was to be a classy affair,” Walker said, affecting a fake British accent. “Deluxe.”

Rosie and I both wrinkled our noses at them. We wanted answers, not riddles. Our irritated looks helped at least a little.

“That’s the name of the stripper.”

“One of them.”

“Exotic dancer.”

“Stripper.”

“Escort.”

“Whatever.”

Wolfgang gave me a toothy smile with a wolfish hint. “We had engaged the services of a charming lady called Deluxe Diamond, and some of her friends, to provide some entertainment for the evening. We needed to be in the room to greet her, and get things started.”

“So you left Chase in the bar while you went to the room with some… dancers?” I said. Poor girls.

“Yep! And then, we partied like we did back in college! It was awesome!”

“Drinks!”

“Drugs!”

“Don’t tell them that!”

“Uh, lots of drinks!”

“Women!”

“It was a great night,” Wolfgang said, “real great.”

“But you didn’t see Chase again?” I asked. “After you left him in the bar?”

“Nope.”

“Did any of you leave the room?” Rosie asked.

“Nah, we were there the whole night,” Wolfgang said. “We talked about going to a club, but we didn’t quite make it out of the room.”

“And you didn’t consider going back down to the bar to check on your buddy? Whose party it was?”

“We considered it,” Wolfgang said. “Didn’t we boys?”

They all confirmed they did.

“But…?” I prompted.

“But he’s a big boy! He could make it up on his own if he wanted. We figured he must have got lucky at the bar.”

“He was about to get married,” Rosie said indignantly.

“Exactly!” Wolfgang said. “Last chance saloon!”

“Not really,” Walker said. “There’s always more chances if you’re suave like me.”

“You’re not suave,” Wolfgang said. “You just have low standards.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Walker agreed, holding up his arms in a you got me pose and laughing.

If Chase was like these guys, it was a shame the whole lot of them hadn’t gone missing, I decided.

“What can you tell us about Chase’s life recently?” I asked. “Had he told you about any issues he was having, any people he had disagreements with, any financial or personal problems?”

“Uh, we don’t talk about boring stuff much,” Wolfgang said. “But he was good, I think. Snagged himself a rich b—, uh, a rich girl. That was helping him get in good with his boss. Y’know about that? That luscious Lia is the niece of Chase’s boss?” Wolfgang clapped his hands together and rubbed them. “Nepotism, baby!”

“You think he was going to get an advantage at work because he was marrying Lia?” I asked, to confirm.

“Oh, heck yeah he was,” Wolfgang said. “Put him on top of the pile. That’s why he dumped his last broad. So he could get with this one. Smart guy.”

“Sounds like a real catch,” Rosie said.

Wolfgang held his arms out. “Hey, babe? We all are. Aren’t we boys?”

They raucously confirmed they were. Walker leaned over to Rosie. “What’re you doing later, sweet cheeks?”

“Staying away from you is what I’m doing later.”

“Hard to get, I like it.”

“Try and get me and I’ll shoot you in the stomach,” Rosie snapped at him. “So you bleed out slow.”

Walker sat back, his cheeks paling. Rosie didn’t even have a gun, but she was a great actress and the ruse worked. It upset me that she’d even had to say it though. The less time we spent with these people, the better.

“Who was the guy from college that Chase met for a drink?”

“Oh, that was Tyler Weed,” Wolfgang said, rolling his eyes. “He’s a loser. Boring. You won’t like him.”

I bet I’d like him more than these guys.

“Tyler Weed, you say?”

“Real name Reed. But we call him Weed because he’s a wimp. It’s not a compliment, if you see what I mean.”

It would have been hard not to see what he meant.

“And did you speak to Tyler?”

“Uh, I think I said something like ‘What’s up, loser,’ as I passed him. Like, he was arriving and we were leaving.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it. Hey, maybe if we spent a bit of one-on-one time I might remember something else…”

“That wouldn’t be good for your health.”

“Wanna do some shots with us?”

I nodded at the empties on the table. “Not those kinds.”

We spent a few more unfortunate and unenjoyable minutes squeezing what else we could get from them. They were all half-cut already, so there wasn’t much issue getting them to talk. But they didn’t have much to say that we wanted to hear.

We got the name of the bar that Delux—without an e—Diamond danced at, and we learned that they’d initially met her and her friends the night before, on the Friday, the first night of the bachelor weekend.

Beyond that, we got inappropriate flirting and some more poor humor.

“I need a shower after meeting them,” Rosie said when we were back in the car. “Yuck.”

“I know, right? I was thinking though, do you think we could track down this Tyler Reed guy? If he’s as bad as them, perhaps we should see him tonight as well before we cleanse ourselves.”

“Good plan,” Rosie said, already tapping and swiping at her phone. She began to mutter to herself. “…filter by college… too old… still in high school… could be one of these two… hmmm…Got him!”

CHAPTER FIVE

T

yler Reed’s home was a faded-looking ground floor unit in an inconveniently located development that had been built without much promise and not lived up to even that.

He took a while to answer the door, and when he did, he stood kind of slack-jawed staring at us, not sure why there could possibly be two incredible, amazing, though slightly greasy women standing at his front door.

“We’re investigators,” I told him, and flashed my ID, impressing him. It got us invited inside, though with some hesitation.

As we entered it was obvious the hesitation came from his embarrassment at his home rather than because he was wary of speaking to us.

The apartment had the air of somewhere that had been lived in a long time, but the decoration and comfiness of a home that had only just been moved into. There were a couple of band posters taped to the wall here and there, a painting that probably came with the place, and a row of ‘decorative’ empty beer bottles—and another of cans—from small-time breweries I’d never heard of.

In the entrance hallway, we passed a framed photograph of Tyler—much younger, college-aged—standing with his arms around a smiling brunette with wide, excited eyes. I knew without asking that she was no longer in the picture—metaphorically, I mean. She was literally in the picture, but not… in the picture of his life.

In the dark living room, Tyler sat on a plastic lawn chair while we got the fabric-covered sofa. If there had been another lawn chair, I would have insisted Rosie and I take them, but there wasn’t, and so I joined my partner on the stained old couch with some trepidation.

“Chase Mallory went missing during his bachelor party weekend.”

I left it there and watched for a reaction.

Tyler’s eyebrows lifted convincingly. He leaned forward, convincingly. “Missing? Chase? On his bachelor weekend?”

Why do people love making me repeat myself?

“Yeah. Tell us about when you last saw him.”

“I saw him that weekend, on Saturday night.”

“Yep. That’s why we’re here.”

“Oh, right. Yeah. Umm, yeah so it was his bachelor weekend and he had a suite booked at the Tremonte.”

“Were you staying in it?”

We knew he wasn’t.

“Uh, no. I’m a pretty busy guy, I couldn’t spare a whole weekend. And the suite was more for his real close friends. They were making a whole weekend of it. He was a buddy, but not a super close one, so I just came by for a drink, to wish him well, tell him good luck and all the rest of it.”

“Please tell us the exact timeline of the evening,” Rosie said. “From the moment you met him to when you said goodnight.”

“Sure. I wasn’t there that long. So, I was there because he posted about his bachelor party on Facebook. He said if anyone else wanted to come by to have a drink with him he’d love to see them—anyone who knew him was welcome. We were friends in college, and it had been a while, so I figured why not drop by, just to catch up for a few, see how he’s doing, all that good stuff.”

So much good stuff.

“That’s good of you,” Rosie said.

“Thanks, but it wasn’t really, I was just dropping by to say ‘Hi’. I mean, I live here in Vegas so it’s not like I was going out of my way. Anyway, I met him in one of the hotel bars—the cocktail bar, on the ground floor. It’s kind of near the casino, but not inside it. Just off the lobby.”

Tyler paused, eyebrows up high, earnest expression on his face, wanting to make sure that he’d been perfectly clear. I nodded to let him know we understood the place he was referring to and nothing needed clarifying yet.

“I got there, and he was talking to a man, an older guy. Older than us, I mean. Maybe sixty? I hung back a moment because it looked like the older guy was about to leave. He was standing, had one hand on Chase’s shoulder. I came over as he was going. His name was Felix Crane, and he’s the uncle of the girl Chase is going to marry. Like me, he wasn’t there for the whole bachelor weekend, he just came by to wish him luck.”

“What was their vibe?” I said. “What you caught of it.”

“Positive,” Tyler said. “But…” He paused to think of how to put it. “He had his hand on his shoulder, and I can’t tell, but I think he was squeezing pretty hard? You know, like he was kind of hurting him a bit? I didn’t hear what he said, but if I had to guess, he was probably telling him not to be too… you know… wild during the bachelor party. You know. Don’t meet women or do anything stupid? That kind of thing? And Chase was just nodding, seriously, as if saying of course he wouldn’t. I think that’s what was going on, I only caught a snippet, but it makes sense, right?”

“Perfect sense,” I agreed.

“Oh shoot I didn’t offer you a drink. You want a, uh, beer? Water?”

“We’re good.”

“Right. Great. I don’t have much in right now. Gotta do the groceries, y’know?”

“Yeah. So, Felix was leaving as you were arriving.”

“That’s right. He was kind of gruff. Like one of those tough older dudes, you know? Like… like a Vietnam vet or something.”

“He’s too young,” I said. “But I get what you mean.”

“Yeah, I just mean he was like that. Not that I know any. I just mean from what I know from movies I guess. He left, and I sat down with Chase, and we just caught up. How ya been, what’s going on, what’s the girl you’re marrying like, that kind of stuff. Nothing special.”

“How did he seem?” I said. “His mood, his physical appearance, his attitude.”

“Right, well, this party had started the night before, on the Friday. I think they’d had a pretty late night. This was day two. He was tired. He looked it, anyway. Had black rings around his eyes. But he said a few drinks would liven him up.” Tyler paused. “I guess he still knows how to party like we did in college.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. It’s cool, isn’t it? Some people get older, they age. But Tyler, he was hanging onto his youth, still partying it up. Still keeping his old friendships alive. Most people don’t manage to do that, do they?”

“Guess not. Did you see his friends? The ones who were staying with him, I mean. In the room.”

“No,” Tyler shook his head. “Chase said they were up in the room. At first, he told me it was because they were exhausted and had no stamina—like he was the only one who could party two days in a row. But then later on, he told me a different story.”

Tyler licked his lips nervously, waited to be prodded, like he didn’t want to ‘snitch’ unless pushed. But he didn’t need to be pushed hard. Just nudged.

“What were they doing in the room?” Rosie asked.

Yep. That was all the nudge he needed.

“He said they were going to have a deluxe party, and he laughed a lot, like it was really funny. And that confused me—I didn’t get the joke. But then later, he explained, he said that he didn’t mean luxury. He said actually, it was kind of the opposite. He said it was the name of a girl. A, uh, exotic dancer. He said her name was Delux. Delux something. Delux Diamond, that’s it! And, oh yeah, she was going to bring her friends up to the room as well and they were going to have an awesome party. He said his buddies were converting the room into a ‘real party room’, whatever that means. I think putting out bottles of liquor. Maybe other stuff. Getting the girls there.”

“Sounds fun,” Rosie said, pretty convincingly, as if that bunch of skeevy sleazeballs weren’t totally repulsive to us.

“Uh, I guess. I kind of thought that if his future uncle-in-law found out though, then…” Tyler held his index finger to his neck and mimed sliding it across his throat.

Rosie and I watched, quietly, to see what he’d do or say next.

“Uh, I don’t mean literally! Sorry. He’s missing, right? Man, I shouldn’t have just said that. I just mean, I think that’s the kind of thing he’d been warned away from, by Felix, so he was maybe taking a risk there.”

“He didn’t invite you to join?”

“Oh, no, I wouldn’t, that’s… that’s not my kind of scene. I like, umm. I mean, I respect them and all if that’s what they want to do, but exotic dancers aren’t, y’know, what I’m looking for in a woman. I’m more… serious.”

“And he didn’t invite you.”

Tyler stared down at his hands and chuckled with embarrassment.

“Yeah, that too.”

“Then what?”

“Umm. So not a lot happened. Just, we had a drink. Wait, actually, I had a second one as well now I think of it. Two bottles of beer. Budweiser, it was a special occasion, you know?”

I lifted my eyebrows. I’m no expert, but I knew that wasn’t a special occasion drink.

“Uh. Not that I think that’s super classy or anything. But y’know, in a fancy resort, they’re kinda expensive? Usually, I just have a quiet brewski at home, one of the cheaper brands. They’re just as good, you know, they just spend less money on marketing. It doesn’t mean their product’s any worse.”

I wasn’t interested in a defense of the quality of Milwaukee Best.

“Back to that night.”

“Yeah, there’s not much else to say. We chatted, he told me a bit more about the girl—her name’s Lisa. And then this other guy I don’t know arrived, from his work, and I figured they’d have their own catching up to do, so I bounced.”

“It’s Lia,” Rosie said, “not Lisa.”

“Oh, right. Yeah. Sorry. I wasn’t trying to lie, I guess I just forgot or maybe I didn’t hear right.”

“Who was the guy from work? Did you get his name?”

“He told me it, but I guess I don’t remember. He was about our age. Brown hair. His name… hmm. It began with a ‘B’, I think. Ben. Brent. Bill—no, definitely not Bill. I’m pretty sure it began with a ‘B’ though.” I gestured that it didn’t matter and he should carry on. “I didn’t talk to him for long. They started talking about their work stuff as soon as he arrived. It wasn’t something I could join in on, and it almost felt like I was being nosy, or prying, so I called it. I said g’night and left them to it.”

“Okay, you were there, you had two drinks, and then you left him, still in the bar, with a coworker of his, whose name began with a ‘B’. Is that accurate?”

“Yep, that’s it. Sorry I can’t be of more help. He wasn’t missing when I left him, that’s all I can tell you.” Tyler stopped, bit his lip, and acted like he wanted to say something more. We waited until he came out with it. Turned out, he didn’t have something to add, he wanted to ask us something. “Do you think something bad happened to him?” he asked finally.

“What do you think?”

“Uh. I figure… either he’s run away, or something bad happened.

“And do you think he was about to run away?”

Tyler shook his head. “I don’t think so. He didn’t seem like that at all.” Tyler was quiet for a moment. “So something bad happened to him. Kidnapped, maybe?”

“Who would want to kidnap him?”

“I don’t know. Sorry. This seems a bit weird, doesn’t it? He was in a fancy resort, not wandering around a bad neighborhood or something. People don’t just disappear from somewhere like the Tremonte.”

“But he did,” Rosie said.

“Man,” Tyler said, “I have no idea what could have happened. None. But I’d really like to find out.”

“Thanks for your time, Tyler. If you think of anything else that may be useful—perhaps something you discussed pops back into your mind that seems relevant, or if you remember anything odd he did, give me a call.” I handed him my business card.

“Okay, will do.” At the door, he gave us a tightlipped smile. “Good luck, I hope you get this figured out.”

“So do we.”

B

ack at our building, Rosie, Stone, Jan, and I were discussing what to eat.

“Pizza!” Jan said. “I could really go for some pepperoni pizza right about now.”

“You say that every day,” I pointed out.

“And am I wrong?”

“It’s always good,” I admit, “but it’s not healthy to eat the same thing every day. You’ve got to mix it up. Stone says a varied diet is very important.” I looked to him for support, and he gave it with a serious nod. “Chinese, Thai, sushi rolls, Indonesian, Indian, Mexican. Gotta mix it up.”

“Maybe he means you should eat some things that aren’t takeout,” Rosie said. She looked to Stone. His lips twitched in amusement and he nodded at her.

“I do!” I countered defensively. “I eat leftovers, too!”

“Leftover what?” Rosie had her hands on her hips and a mock-stern tone in her voice.

“Leftover takeout,” I said meekly in a small voice.

While we were laughing, Rosie turned to Jan. “Anyway, tomorrow is pizza night. Tuesday night is pizza night, that’s the new rule.”

Stone glanced at me. I winced back at him. He took a deep breath and put his concerns aside. “I could make us a salad?”

“Ooh!” I said. “Good idea. But let’s not have regular salad, let’s order some Thai salad! Papaya salad! With some noodles and rice and some sate!”

“That does sound good,” Stone admitted.

So Thai it was.

“Oh, we better order a bit extra for Nanna,” I said. “She’s coming over with a surprise.”

“Ooh, what’s the surprise?” Rosie said, eyes alight.

“She didn’t tell me,” I said. “I think she wants the surprise to be a surprise.”

“Aww. Okay, I’ll order extra fried rice, she loves fried rice.”

“And those little chicken drum things with the non-spicy spices on them,” I said. “She loves those.”

Rosie was on the case, and soon our Thai food was on the way. I think there was a reason that I had Thai in my mind.

“What’d you think of Ty-ler, Rosie?”

“Oh! I bet he loves Thai food!” Rosie said, completely nonsensically though it made sense in Rosie-logic. Then she caught on to the fact that I wasn’t asking about his dietary preferences. “A little bit sad,” she said. “I think he’s got no direction. He needs a life coach. Maybe we should tell him to get in touch with Sue Giant. Or even Jenks.”

“Ugh.” I shuddered involuntarily. The life coach Sue Giant and her protegee Jenks were people we’d encountered during the course of various investigations, and I really didn’t want to even think about them, let alone tell a hapless young man to get in touch with them. “Right. And apart from his diet and his personal goals, what do you think of him in connection to our case…?”

Jan was snickering to herself and Stone was looking on in amusement, leaning against the wall with his arms folded in front of him. It was a pretty relaxed pose for him, though it kind of looked more like he was keeping the wall in place than taking it easy.

“Ohh. Yeah. I think he was basically telling the truth. But now we’ve got a time and a location to check on the security feeds, right? I figure we go to the Tremonte security office and watch the footage from the cocktail bar. See if it matches up. Get a face for this coworker, show it to Felix or Lia, and then we can interview him, too.”

“Yep. Sounds like a plan.”

It’s nice to know exactly what steps you’re going to take next in a case.

“Oh, oh, oh,” Rosie said. “And we’ve got to go and see that psycho ex, Jasmine.”

“Yeah. But let’s follow up on these security tapes first. Maybe we’ll be able to watch exactly where he goes. Maybe we’ll follow him on the cameras to another room in the hotel where he’s hiding out from everyone.”

“I think that’s a bit optimistic, boss.”

Bah. A girl can dream.

“Yeah, I guess.”

The doorbell rang.

“Dinner!” Jan yelled and headed to the door.

I hurried behind her, just in case it was a two-person job. (Or maybe I wanted to make sure I got first dibs.)

“Surprise!”

It was Nanna, with her surprise.

“Surprise!” said the surprise.

The surprise was little Angel, carrying what looked suspiciously like an overnight bag. She had an ‘I’m staying with you tonight!’ gleam in her eyes. Yeah, I can read people just like that. The fact that she was also already wearing pajamas was, I admit, an additional clue that really tipped me off—they don’t call me the greatest detective in Las Vegas for nothing, ya know.

“I’ve got our whole evening planned out!” Angel announced. “First, I want Thai food!”

“It’s your lucky night,” I said.

“And then for our midnight feast, I want pizza. And then, for second-midnight-feast, I want Georgian stew!”

“Uh. I don’t think there’s such a thing as second-midnight-feast…” I said, shellshocked.

Angel and Nanna marched inside, leaving me to close the door.

Life couldn’t just be easy, could it?

CHAPTER SIX

T

he next morning, Angel was bouncing on my bed. She’s nice like that.

“Up! Up! Up!”

“Why?”

Angel paused, confused. It didn’t last long.

“Because I’m awake! And children need more sleep than adults! So you’ve gotta be awake too!”

Made sense. Kinda.

A few minutes later I was brewing coffee, staring at the pot as it slowly filled. I was idly wondering if there was something like an anti-coffee I could give Angel so she’d chill out just a bit. Something nice and relaxing, and calming, and soothing. Then I realized I was considering drugging a kid, darn it.

“What’re we gonna do today, Auntie Tiffy?”

“Auntie Rosie and I were planning on working today. I wasn’t expecting to see you. You’ll have to come to work with us. Where’s your mom again?”

“Conference!”

“Yeah, Nanna said that. Do you know where her conference is?”

“Las Vegas!”

“So she’s here? In town?”

Angel nodded seriously. “Yes. She said it’s an important conference, and I can’t go because I would embarrass everyone because I’m too clever.”

“Yeah?”

“Uh-huh. I’m the cleverest little girl in Las Vegas. Mommy says I’m cleverer than most lawyers. Do you think that’s true?”

Angel folded her arms in front of her and gave me an interrogative look. The kind that implies a waterboarding if you give the wrong answer.

“Oh, for sure. I always have to think very hard whenever I say anything to you.”

Angel beamed. “Are we gonna do some detectiving? Can I wake up Auntie Rosie? Can we have waffles and pancakes? Can we go to Disney?”

“Uh, yes, yes, maybe, and no.”

Angie scrunched up her face in thought. My coffee maker gurgled and dripped. I hoped she wouldn’t say anything too clever.

“I got two out of four! Fifty percent agreement! Mom says if you get more than fifty percent in negotiatingining then you’re winning. Let’s turn that maybe into a ‘heck yeah’, Auntie Tiffy!”

“You really want waffles and pancakes?”

“Yes! In a restaurant with a dino waiter.”

“A dino waiter?”

“Tranasawrus. They’re the best.”

“The best waiters? Or the best dinosaurs?”

“Both!”

I took Angel to the front door, then pointed down the hallway at Rosie’s.

“Go get her.”

It’s important to encourage independence in the young, so I let Angel walk down the hallway alone. Also, my coffee hadn’t kicked in yet so I really didn’t think I could be bothered.

I did stay in the doorway, though, to make sure she didn’t wander off or get kidnapped or whatever. While Angel hammered on Rosie’s door I idly wondered whether a kidnapping might be a way to get some free childcare. You’d have to make sure they were nice kidnappers, is what I was thinking, as Angel hammered on Rosie’s door.

“Angel!” Rosie shouted in apparent delight as she swung the door open.

“Comeoncomeon!” Angel had a hand latched onto Rosie’s wrist already and was dragging her down the hall.

“Bye, Snowflake!” Rosie called to her cat, to no response.

“Tiffy is taking us for pancakes and waffles and we’re gonna go to Disney and we’re gonna have a dino waiter and we’re going detectiving!”

“Awesome! I’ve never been to Disney!”

“We’re not going to Disney,” I said.

Angel looked up seriously at Rosie. “We’re still negotiatinging. I’m winning.”

“Nice!” Rosie said as we trooped back inside.

“Auntie Tiffy needs coffee or she’ll die,” Angel said knowledgeably. “After that, we can go to get our pancakes and waffles and more coffee, because, she’ll die if she doesn’t have that, as well.”

Had I really said that to her? Or was she inferring?

“Oh, I’ve got a good idea, boss!”

“Yeah?” I said dubiously.

“Let’s do a caffeine cleanse. No coffee for a month! I can throw out the pot in the kitchen if you want to start now?”

“You try that, and I’ll throw you out the window,” I said. “The only cleansing I’m doing is in the shower.”

“Okay!” Rosie said, always happy to agree. “What’s on the agenda today?”

“Pancakes, waffles, dinos, Disney!”

“Breakfast, then we’ll go watch the cocktail bar security tapes and get this case wrapped up by lunch.”

“I can do wrapping,” Angel said. “The trick is to use lots and lots and LOTS of tape.”

Rosie shook her head. “No, if you do it right, you only need to use one little piece of tape to secure your whole wrap.”

Angel folded her arms and shook her head adamantly. “No! You use lots and lots of tape so they can never, ever, ever get it open. That’s the best way.”

“But that’s…”

I tuned them out while I went back into the kitchen. Coffee. That’s what I needed. Coffee.

M

ind sharp as Mom’s kitchen knives—they’re kinda blunt, actually—Rosie, Angel, and I headed over to the Tremonte. Rosie had dug out a deerstalker hat from her wardrobe and secured it to Angel’s head, and she’d given her a magnifying glass well.

We arrived at the security office, and we were expected. The guy who was to be our liaison, Miller, came over to greet us. He crouched down.

“Good morning, ma’am,” he said to Angel. “I take it you’re in charge. And these are your assistants?”

Angel nodded. “Yes! I’m the boss! This is Auntie Tiffy and Auntie Rosie. They’re kind of stupid, but they try their best!”

“That’s all any of us can do,” Miller said gravely.

We extended our hands to shake and reiterated our names without the aunties.

Miller was a cheery guy in his forties, almost bald, with a crown of scattered hair. He took us over to a large desk with a whole bank of monitors.

“If it’s okay with you, I’ll sit down and operate the machines. You just tell me what you need and I’ll dig it up.”

“Perfect,” I said. “We’d like to start in the cocktail bar, at six o’clock in the evening. We’ll want to scrub through at high speed until we see our guy. Their arrival time should be between six and seven.”

With a few clicks and taps, Miller had a beautiful high-resolution video from behind the bar that allowed us to see anyone sitting up at the bar, as well as anyone entering from the hotel lobby. Most of the tables and booths were covered by the camera’s field of view as well, and he assured us we could switch to another view if anyone went out of shot.

“Faster! Faster! Faster!” Angel commanded as we went from double, to triple, to quadruple speed. We got up to sixteen speed before I issued a, “Stop!”

Angel, guessing correctly, excitedly pointed at the screen. “There, there, there!”

She was right. On the screen were Chase and—ugh—‘The Boys’, swaggering into the place.

“Yuck,” Angel said. “I don’t like them.”

I squeezed Angel’s shoulder. “Good call. I don’t like them either. Remember to trust your instincts about people like that, Angel, it’ll hold you in good stead.”

Angel smiled up at me happily. “Okay! And, if I don’t like someone, I’ll tell them! I’ll say ‘Hey, you! You’re yucky and I hate you!’”

“Uh, no, please don’t do that,” I said. When Angel began to scrunch up her face in confused irritation, I added, “We shouldn’t say things like that because sometimes we might be wrong, it’s always better to be nice. We should treat people like they’re good even if we think they’re not. Also, if they are a really bad person they might get angry at us and cause problems.”

“Oh. Okay. I’ll lie!”

Angel had a remarkable ability to get me to dig holes for myself. It was quite incredible. I turned back to the screen before I could dig any deeper.

Chase entered the bar a little after six, walking in with Felix beside them.

“Based on their body language, they just met,” Rosie said, “probably just outside the door.”

Felix and Chase walked over to the bar and sat down. Felix had a small glass of whiskey, and Chase had a gin and tonic. They clinked their glasses together and chatted for a while.

Just as Felix’s glass was nearly empty, Tyler made an appearance. He hovered in the doorway for a moment, hesitant to approach, probably because he didn’t know Felix.

Chase seemed to see Tyler in the mirror behind the bar, because he turned, a hand raised in greeting already.

As Tyler came over, Felix drained the last of his drink. He put his head up to Chase’s ear and said something into it. Chase nodded back seriously, a stony look on his face, and then Felix was off, walking briskly out of the bar while Tyler came to sit with Chase.

Then the Boys appeared, coming into the bar in a big mobbish bunch, ignoring Tyler, focused on Chase.

Wolfgang squeezed his shoulder, and another punched it. Then, he got a couple more punches—some looking hard enough to bruise. Tyler had shifted his barstool over a little to give the guys room to crowd around Chase.

“Are those friendly punches?” Rosie said.

“I… think so?”

“Okay, drinks,” Rosie said as the bartender lined up shot glasses on the counter while the guys crowded around.

“What are they drinking?” Angel asked.

“Grownup juice,” I said absently.

“Tequila,” Rosie said.

“I want tequila!”

“No, you don’t,” I told her. “It tastes horrible, and it’ll make you horrible like these people.”

“Okay! Then, I don’t want tequila. Please don’t give me tequila, Auntie Tiffie.”

Angel said it just as another security guard was passing our station. She stopped and gave me a hard stare, eyebrows arched.

“I wasn’t going to give her any!” I said, so defensively it probably sounded like I was lying.

“It’s true,” Miller said in my defense. “What you heard was out of context.”

The lady gave me a warning look and walked off.

Gah. I’d fallen into yet another Angel-hole.

“Let’s focus,” I said.

On the screen, the guys drank the shots, then did another round of them, and then the guys all gave Chase another goodbye punch and walked out of the bar. As if just noticing him, Wolfgang said something to Tyler, gave him an arm punch as well, and then they all left.

Tyler was looking pretty stressed out, but when the Boys had left, he began to relax again, and the two began to talk.

“Okay, you can speed the video up again now,” I said.

Tyler drank a bottle of Budweiser, sipping on it slowly. Chase had a gin and tonic, but also, a shot of liquor, whiskey this time. Then another. And another.

“He’s drinking a lot…” Rosie said.

“Right? Maybe we need to check the hospitals.”

The shots kept coming, and it seemed to be Tyler ordering them each time. He was giving Chase encouraging smiles and pats on the shoulder while he drank them.

“That’s five,” I said as Chase drank another.

We continued to watch. From behind, another guy of a similar age approached. He greeted them and then sat down on the other side of Chase. He quickly ordered three shots and the barman began to pour liquor into the short row of glasses.

“That’s dark rum,” Miller said. “They switched it up again.”

“They say you shouldn’t mix your drinks,” Rosie said. “But he’s had gin, tequila, whiskey and rum.”

“And that’s assuming they’re his first drinks of the evening,” I said.

“Which they probably aren’t,” Rosie said.

“So this must be Chase’s coworker,” I said. “Tyler said his name began with a ‘B’, right? We’ll call him B for now. Okay, Rosie, grab a shot of him so we can ask Felix and Lia who it is.”

“On it.”

With the shot glasses empty, B ordered another one—singular—and slid it over to Chase, squeezing his arm as he did it.

Then Tyler ordered another.

And Brandon ordered another.

Singles, for Chase, each time.

“How many’s he had now?” I said.

“That’s number twelve,” Rosie said. I could always trust her to know the numbers.

We pushed our heads closer to the screen, trying to see into his eyes. Even though it was a good-quality feed for a security camera, I couldn’t quite make out how dilated his pupils had become. He was visibly swaying on his barstool, though.

“I thought Tyler said he left when B arrived?” I said, tapping my fingers on the desk while I thought. “But he didn’t. He’s still there.” We continued to watch. More shots were ordered, and Tyler eventually went on to a second beer.

About an hour after B had arrived, Tyler finally said goodnight. Chase was so woozy he barely even noticed Tyler leaving.

“We gotta speak to him again,” Rosie said. “Find out why he was lying.”

“I think we can guess why,” I said. “He just fed Chase a whole bunch of shots. Maybe he’s worried Chase’s disappearance is connected to the amount of alcohol he just had and he doesn’t want to be on the hook for it.”

With Tyler gone, B ordered another shot. This time, Chase pushed it away from him, shaking his head. Tyler said something to him.

“He’s calling him a wimp or something,” Rosie said. “Cajoling him into drinking it.”

It worked. Chase downed the final shot. Then the bartender leaned over and said something to B.

“He’s telling him Chase is cut off,” Rosie said. “No more drinks for him.”

“I’m surprised they gave him that many in the first place,” I said.

“The bartender on duty switched halfway,” Rosie said. “Probably didn’t realize how many he’d had.”

“Ah. Yeah, that might do it.”

Chase and B talked a little more, and then B stood, putting an arm around Chase. The bachelor slid off his stool, falling into B’s chest.

“He’s carrying him out of there!” Rosie said.

While he didn’t quite have him fully lifted off the ground, B had Chase’s arm slung over his shoulder and was taking a lot of his weight.

“Can you follow them?” I asked Miller as they exited the bar.

“Yep. Let’s see…”

Miller switched us to a camera in the lobby, and we watched them cross it.

“They’re not going to the elevator,” Rosie said as the two men made a beeline for the main entrance.

Miller swapped cameras again to one above the inside lobby entrance, and then another, to watch them as they exited the building. Miller switched us to one final camera on the edge of the Tremonte property, and we watched as B and Chase stumbled off down the Strip.

“Next camera!” Angel yelled, clapping her hands excitedly.

“Sorry honey, that’s as far as our eyes go.”

Angel frowned up at him. “They should have cameras everywhere,” she declared. “So baddies are always on video, everywhere they go! Then we won’t even need detectives like Auntie Tiffie and Rosie.”

“That would mean you were on camera everywhere you went as well,” I reminded her. “They’d be able to see every little thing you did. If you were naughty…”

Angel pressed a hand to her mouth, quickly shaking her head.

“Cameras should be illegal!”

S

abertooth Development had a fancy office, with glass and metal and bling and sparkle everywhere you looked. The office was all open-plan, except for a glass-walled corner which was Felix’s office.

As we entered, he touched a remote control and the glass walls magically turned opaque. Okay, it might not have been actual magic, but as far as I was concerned it might as well have been.

We showed him a picture of B.

“This guy work for you?”

“That’s Brandon. Brandon Silvio. He’s one of my top guys.”

“Yeah? We need to talk to him.”

Felix tapped his wrist, where a watch would be if he had one, which he didn’t. “He’s on the clock. Working.”

“Right,” I said, “but we do need to talk to him.”

“Call him after work. He’s got an important meeting with a client, I don’t want him distracted.”

I looked at Rosie to see what she thought. She shrugged, and said, “How about you give us his address? We could drop by and see him when he finishes work and gets home.”

“Yeah, that’s a better idea. Talk to him during his time, not my time.”

Felix used an intercom to order someone to bring us Brandon’s address.

“What can you tell us about him?” I said.

“He’s one of my top guys. He’s good at this business. If Chase doesn’t show his face soon, Brandon’s going to take his position.”

Aha.

“You’re saying that with Chase out of the picture, Brandon’s going to get a promotion?”

Felix leaned back in his leather chair, hands steepled in front of him.

“You think he did something to Chase? Got rid of him so he could take his job?” Felix slowly shook his head as he considered this possibility. “Brandon’s a real go-getter, but…” Felix trailed off while he kicked the idea around a little more in his head. “That would be some hardball, wouldn’t it?”

“It sure would,” I said.

Some real hardball indeed.

CHAPTER SEVEN

W

e dropped by the convention center at the Tremonte to hand off our package. I mean, Angel.

“Was she good?” Amber asked, worry and gratefulness equally etched in her eyes as her daughter stomped over to meet her.

“Auntie Tiffy gets up too late and she doesn’t do second midnight feast. Auntie Rosie was oh-kay, considering.”

“Sorry, I was asking Tiffany.” Amber smiled at me, a little embarrassed. “I didn’t realize Nanna was busy, I didn’t mean to impose.”

“It was no problem,” I said, “we had great fun, didn’t we, Angel?”

“Yes. Auntie Tiffy showed me videos of bad people and she didn’t give me tequila!”

“I didn’t give her whiskey, vodka, gin, or rum either,” I confirmed. “And it was just security footage we were watching.” I nodded my head behind me. “Missing person, right here in the Tremonte.”

“A missing person? Angel’s quite good at Where’s Waldo.”

“I’m not quite good, I’m the best,” Angel said sternly. “But we didn’t find Auntie Tiffy’s man because he went out of the picture. You can’t find someone if they’re not in the picture.”

“No, I don’t suppose you can,” Amber said. “Okay, let’s get you home.”

We waved goodbye to Amber and Angel and then got back down to business. We would see Brandon at his home later, in the meantime, it was time to pay a visit to Chase’s ex.

“Boss,” Rosie said as we strode back to the car, “what did Angel mean when she said I was quite good, ‘considering’…?

J

asmine’s home was reminiscent of Tyler’s, though where his was sparsely furnished, hers was overloaded with, what we might call politely, items of questionable utility. There were half a dozen umbrellas by the door—most of them broken. There were also three chairs crowding the entranceway, none of which would be able to support even my svelte(ish) self.

She had posters on the walls, most of them of celebrities from the early two thousands, and there were little heaps of books and magazines, half-read, on most flat or only slightly-tilted surfaces.

Jasmine had bouffant curly hair and she was wearing ripped jeans and a sleeveless blue t-shirt which looked like she’d cut the arms off herself. Her wrists bore red marks, and there was a faded, faint bruise.

“You’re here to talk about Chase?” she said, eyes gleaming when we spoke to her on the front doorstep. “Come in, come in, come in,” she ushered us to follow her to the living room where she gently removed an only mildly-perturbed black cat from a sofa and pointed for us to sit.

“How’s he doing?” she said as she sat in a creaky wooden rocker. “I haven’t been able to see him recently.”

“We’re not sure,” I said. “He’s missing.”

Jasmine’s eyes went wide. “I knew it! He hasn’t been at work all week.”

“Do you work with him?” Rosie asked.

We knew the answer was no, but we wanted to ascertain what Jasmine was willing to admit to, and whether she realized what her behavior was like.

“No, I don’t work, I don’t have the time, I don’t know how anyone does. I like to check in on Chase though. You know, see how he’s doing. Just because you break up with someone, it doesn’t mean you have to stop being friends and stop caring about each other, right?”

“Makes sense!” Rosie said with a scary amount of enthusiasm and agreement in her voice. She was acting, I reminded myself. Just acting.

“When was the last time you checked in on him?” I said.

“I dropped by the office today. I didn’t go in, I don’t like to disturb them when they’re working, you know? I just had a quick peek, and when I saw he wasn’t in the office I waited outside for a little while to see if he would turn up. Then I came back home.”

“How long have you been back?”

“Ten minutes, maybe.”

That meant she’d spent… hmm… four? five? hours waiting outside their office.

“When was the last time you actually saw him?” I asked.

“Last Friday,” she said. “He finished work early to go somewhere. It took some sleuthing, but I figured out he was having a bachelor party weekend. I felt sorry for him.”

“Yeah? Why’s that?”

“He’s marrying the wrong person. Things aren’t going to work out between him and that Lia girl, no way. She’s not right for him. No, it’s a big mistake. He’ll realize his mistake in time, but it’s such a shame he’s going through with a wedding first. That’ll be an expensive lesson, huh?”

“What makes you think Lia’s not right for him?” Rosie asked.

Jasmine blinked a couple of times. “She’s… she’s not me,” she said finally.

“Look. I’ll prove it.”

“Wait, prove what?” I said as Jasmine stood up.

She answered with an action. “Look!”

Jasmine turned her back to us and slipped her t-shirt over her shoulder so that we could see the top segment of her upper back.

“Oh, wow,” I said.

“That’s… incredible…” Rosie added.

On the back of Jasmine’s shoulder was a large black and white portrait of Chase’s face. It was a very skillfully done piece, highly detailed, right down to the alarmingly life-like eyes.

“Yeah, sometimes I stare at it in the mirror until my neck hurts,” Jasmine said, laughing. “I should have got it done on my cheek instead, right?” She tapped the side of her face with her finger. She was smiling but, also, she was serious.

“My Nanna says you should never get a face tattooed on your face. It confuses people,” I said.

“Hmm.” Jasmine considered that for a little while. “I guess.”

When she was sitting again, I gently tapped her on the wrist where there was a faded bruise, a red mark, and several scratches.

“What happened?”

“Oh!” Jasmine looked at her faded injuries and laughed. “That was Scratchy McMeow-meow-meow! He’s a bit temperamental.”

“That’s your cat,” I said, nodding to the door where it was sitting in the doorway watching us with some displeasure.

“Yep! He’s the best naughty cat ever.” Jasmine made a kissing motion with her lips and then called to him, “Aren’t you, baby?”

The cat did not comment on the matter, and instead turned and stalked out of the doorway.

“Bye, cat!” Rosie called after him.

Jasmine quickly shook her head at Rosie. “He doesn’t answer to ‘cat’. You have to call him Scratchy McMeow-meow-meow or he’ll ignore you.”

“Okay, got it,” Rosie said seriously. “My cat’s the same.”

I was pretty sure Snowflake ignored us whatever name we called her. Except when she was hungry, of course.

“Can you tell us about your relationship with Chase?”

“A love story for the ages,” she said with a happy sigh.

“It started in nineteen ninety-one when I was born in—”

“—Could we cut to Chase, please?” I said.

“You want just the highlights? Aww.”

“Not even that, just a brief summary.”

“Okay. I’ll give you the shortest mini version that’s possible. Perhaps another day we could all get together and tell each other our love stories over Mimosas.”

“Yeah, maybe. So, when did you and Chase meet, and when did you break up?”

“For Chase, it was love at first sight, but I played hard-to-get at first. I had another boyfriend, at the time—”

“Tyler!” Rosie interrupted.

Ah! Rosie was right. Jasmine was the girl we’d seen in the years-old photo on Tyler’s wall. Her hair had gotten bigger, and her style less refined, but yep, now that I thought of it, it was the same girl.

“Yeah! That’s right!” Jasmine said. “Do you know him? I wonder how he’s doing?”

“We’ve met him,” I said. “He’s doing just as well as you.”

“That’s a relief to hear. Sometimes I think I miss the old goofball, but then I remember that my destiny is tied to another.”

“You should give him a call sometime,” Rosie said. “Give him another chance.”

“I don’t think Chase would be very happy if I did!” Jasmine paused to ponder. “Although… it could make him jealous, right? That’s how I snagged him in the first place! That could be a good idea. I start dating Tyler again, Chase gets jealous, and bam! We’re back together and everybody’s happy.”

“I’m not sure Tyler would be,” I said.

Jasmine shook her head. “He’ll understand. True love can explain anything. Yeah, maybe I’ll give him a call.”

Rosie winced. Her good-intentioned comment had led Jasmine in an entirely undesired direction.

I gestured for her to continue. “Back to the story, please.”

“Okay, so, Tyler and I were dating, but Chase set his heart on me. I was blind to his charms at first, but he won me over and he made me kick Tyler to the curb.” Jasmine put on a deep voice, presumably imitating Chase, “‘Go in hard. Tell him he’s a loser and you don’t want anything more to do with him. Ya gotta be tough with guys, let ’em know it’s over or he’ll keep pining for you.’” Jasmine giggled.

“That doesn’t sound very nice,” Rosie said.

“‘Ya gotta be cruel to be kind,’” Jasmine intoned.

“So then you and Chase got together?”

“That’s right. It was so romantic. We were together all the time. He loved me so much he didn’t want me seeing any of my friends, he wanted me all to myself!”

Red flag, red flag.

“That doesn’t sound healthy,” Rosie told her. “It sounds like he was jealous and controlling.”

“That’s what you want in a man, isn’t it?” Jasmine said, eyes sparkling.

“No,” Rosie and I said in unison, rather more forcefully than either of us had intended.

“It was nice to feel so wanted. Anyway, we lived in absolute bliss and harmony. We’ve hit a bit of a rough patch now, but once we’re back together this part will just be a funny little story.”

Hmm.

“When did this rough patch begin?” I asked her.

Jasmine began counting on her fingers, frowning. “About five years ago.”

“Big patch,” Rosie said.

“The highest peaks of love come after the deepest valleys of despair,” Jasmine said sagely.

“Is that a quote?” Rosie said. “I don’t know that one.”

“It is now! You can credit it to me. I’ve always wanted to make a quote. Maybe you could send it into one of the quote books?”

“I’ll look into it,” Rosie promised. “So, five years ago you and Chase broke up?”

“We’re on a break, yes. But I still see him all the time.”

“And does he see you…?”

Jasmine shook her head. “He’s very busy with his work, I don’t like to disturb him. Sometimes he catches me though. He thinks it’s so cute.”

“And what does his fiancée think?”

Jasmine shrugged. “Who cares? I tried to let her know that she’s only a fake fiancée and that he was going to come back to me before long, but she didn’t get it. Some people just don’t, do they? You can tell them a hundred times, but they—” Jasmine’s eyes turned hard and she punctuated her words with dramatic pauses, “—Just. Don’t. Get. It.”

“Right, thanks, Jasmine. Now, Chase has gone missing. No one has seen him since Saturday night when he disappeared. Do you know where he might have gone to? Does he have any spots he likes to go when he needs some alone time?”

Jasmine sat up straight. “Has something happened to him?”

“We don’t know yet. No one knows where he is.”

“Did she do something to him?” Jasmine’s brow furrowed. “Did he tell her he wasn’t going to marry her, so she’s… kidnapped him? Or…” She shook her head at the possibility of something worse.

“She hired us to find him,” Rosie said. “So we don’t think she kidnapped him, no.”

“She could be trying to put you off the trail! Misdirection!”

“We wouldn’t be on the trail if it wasn’t for her and her uncle. So is there anywhere you can think of that he might go?”

“Since he got that job, he works most of the time. He goes to a gym, there’s a cafe near his house that he likes, and he works. He doesn’t do much else these days, sometimes he pulls eighty-hour weeks! It’s hard to keep on top of it. I get exhausted just keeping track of his schedule.”

“Yeah, that must be tiring,” I agreed. “So he doesn’t have, I don’t know, a cabin in the mountains or something? An old family property?”

Jasmine shook her head. “His family don’t have a vacation property, they’re not rich. Chase and I are going to have to work hard for everything. When we buy a house, it’ll be because we worked for it, not because our families’ paid for it.”

“Okay. So you haven’t seen him since Friday, and you don’t know where he could be. Is there anything you can tell us that might help us in tracking him down?”

“Did you try calling his phone?”

“Lia, and his boss, have repeatedly tried to call him, yes.”

Jasmine frowned. “You’re getting me worried now. I know he hadn’t been to work yesterday and today, but I thought he was probably recovering from his bachelor weekend. He’s a very good drinker, but it catches up with him sometimes. His car hasn’t moved in his driveway since Friday.” Jasmine frowned. “We should search the house! Lia might have him tied up in the attic! He probably wants to come to me, and she’s not letting him. That’s the only explanation that makes sense.”

“Okay, thanks for your time, Jasmine. I’ll give you my car, and if you see him, or hear from him, will you let us know?”

“Okay. Oh, unless he’s on the run. Then obviously we’ll have to keep a low profile—you understand?”

“Uh, okay. If it’s a Bonnie and Clyde situation, we understand if you don’t call. You take care now, Jasmine.”

“Bye, Scratchy McMeow-meow-meow!” Rosie called out into the house.

Despite the cat not even being visible, I’m sure we heard a distinct meow in response.

“Such a good boy,” Jasmine said happily as she waved us away.

Rosie and I left a worried Jasmine behind and went to take stock before going to see Brandon in the evening.

“One moment, she seems kind of normal, then she says something completely crazy!” Rosie said. “I think he really messed her head up.”

“Right? It sounds like he was a terrible boyfriend to her. Like she had a lucky escape, but she didn’t realize.”

“It makes me sad, boss. She needs to get over him. Badly.”

“I think she might need help, she’s genuinely delusional.” I fell quiet for a second. “Rosie, how do you think she would act and deal with it if she had, y’know… hurt him?”

“You mean like if she killed him?”

“Yeah.”

Rosie thought about it for a moment before she replied. “Well, when he broke up with her, she denied reality, right? I think if he died, she’d probably do the same thing, wouldn’t she? Pretend it didn’t happen? Or forget, or however it works with her.” Rosie was quiet for another moment of thought. “You don’t think the marks on her wrist were from Scratchy McMeow-meow-meow, do you?”

I shook my head.

“Nope. Cats scratch, but they don’t bruise you. They can’t.”

“They’re too soft and squidgy,” Rosie agreed. “I guess maybe they could knock something heavy off a high shelf, and then it could land on you?”

“That’s not very likely.”

“No, boss, it isn’t.”

I started the car.

“Right. We’ve got a few hours before we go to see Brandon. I think we should have another chat with Tyler. Find out why he lied to us about the bar.”

“I think I can guess why,” Rosie said, her tone melancholic.

Sadly, I thought I could, too.

CHAPTER EIGHT

R

osie and I had discussed our thoughts on the case over a delicious and energy-packed lunch that gave us the fuel we needed to continue our high-octane investigation. Our main conclusion had been that Chase was a lot less popular than he might have first appeared and that there was probably a much darker side to him than either Lia or Felix wanted to see.

When we went back to see Tyler he was all smiles again, at least at first. He was currently between jobs—the economy, you know—and so he had plenty of time to kick back at him.

“Tyler,” I said with an edge in my voice when we were again sitting on the edge of his horrible sofa, “we’re back so soon because we don’t think you were entirely honest with us last time.”

“And that makes us suspicious,” Rosie said. “And being under suspicion of kidnapping, or worse, isn’t a position you want to find yourself in.”

“Not when we’re investigating,” I said, leaning in close to him, a hard stare in my eyes.

Tyler gulped and looked suitably intimidated. While Rosie and I are lovely, obviously, we can do ‘stern’ when we need to’’, and ‘edgy’ when we’re pushed. Rosie can do ‘unstable’ as well; ‘dangerous’, too, but those are thanks to her excellent acting skills. I think.

“Yeah…?” He said finally. “What, what did I get wrong? Maybe I misremembered.”

“Yeah, let’s go with that,” I said. “For now.”

“Better hope you don’t misremember again though,” Rosie said. “That wouldn’t be great for you.”

“No, it really wouldn’t,” I said with a sad but determined toss of my head. “But it sounds like you’re eager to comply, so let’s get to it. You told us that you had two drinks with Chase and you left when his coworker arrived. You couldn’t even remember his name. But that’s not what happened. So, try, again, and be honest this time.”

“I did have two drinks,” Tyler said a little sullenly.

“And a shot,” Rosie said.

“Right. And a shot.” We both stared at him, hard. He wilted quickly. “And Chase… Chase had a few more. He was really celebrating, you know? So I was generous, I bought him a few more shots.”

“You don’t exactly seem flush with cash,” I said, pointedly eying his apartment and letting him know that I judged it to be substandard. “It must have been a big hit to your bottom line to be so… generous. Now tell us the truth about Chase’s drinks. And here’s a helpful nugget for you: We watched the security footage. We just want to hear it from your voice.”

“Security footage…?” Tyler gulped. “I thought that got wiped every forty-eight hours…”

“Why’d you think that?” Rosie asked.

“I worked in a bar once. That’s how it worked there.”

“Times have moved on,” Rosie said. “Storage is cheap. And the Tremonte’s a big deal. They keep their footage for months, maybe years.”

“Oh.” Tyler stared down at his hands. “Okay. I, uh, I better come clean. You want a drink?”

“No thank you.”

“Just a moment. I need one.”

Tyler headed for the kitchen and Rosie followed him. When he gave her a questioning look, she just arched her eyebrows at him and did something with her eyes that made him hurry up and not try anything.

Tyler returned with a can of Milwaukee Best that looked really cold, like his refrigerator was turned up way too high. It had a dull sheen of freezer frost and frozen droplets looked like dollops of glue clinging to the outside. It opened with a hiss and he had to hold it up to his lips to stop it from spilling onto the floor. I looked down beneath the sofa and judging by the black, sticky stains, Tyler was not always successful at preventing spillages. Nor was he the best housekeeper.

“Thirsty,” he said after sipping off the top and then taking a couple of larger gulps. “That’s better.”

“Glad to hear it. Now, you were going to tell us the truth about your interaction with Chase on the evening he disappeared. We want to know what was said, and the reasons for your actions. Remember, we’ve seen them, now we need to hear.”

“And we’ll be verifying it with our lipreading expert when we meet her tomorrow,” Rosie said, “so don’t even bother lying.”

Rosie said it so convincingly I almost believed her. It wasn’t a bad idea though. Having a lipreader on our side would be useful not just in reviewing silent security footage but other situations we commonly find ourselves in. Watching someone from a distance would be a lot more effective if we could tell what they were saying. Maybe I could— No. Maybe Rosie could learn.

“The beginning is true,” Tyler said. “I knew him from college, and I came to meet him, and I did have two beers. And a shot. But I guess you saw, Chase had a lot more. A lot more.”

“You were trying to get him drunk,” Rosie said.

“No—”

“Clearly you were,” I snapped, hoping he wasn’t going to make us go all around the houses with every statement he made.

“Sure he was going to get drunk. But that wasn’t the goal.” Tyler took another sip, licked his lips. “I was trying to kill him.”

W

ell.

That was more than I was expecting to get from Tyler. A murder attempt on our missing person, just shortly before he disappeared? Tyler was shaping up to be a very interesting suspect indeed.

We pushed him for details.

“I hate him. I hate him, I hate him, I hate him.”

Tyler’s eyes had taken on the iciness of the beer he was clutching, the can now dented and crinkled where he’d squeezed it with tight, angry fingers.

“Because of Jasmine?” Rosie said, gently this time.

“Yes. Jasmine.” Tyler breathed out a dreamy, longing, sigh. “She and I were so happy together. Until he came along. He lied to her, and he tricked her, and he… he… mind-controlled her. She left me because of what she thought he was. But she was deluded, she was taken in by him. He was lying. Always lying, always cheating, always being a terrible person. You know in college, he didn’t even write his own papers? He paid this company to write the papers for him. He got better grades than me even though he didn’t earn them. Then he stole my Jasmine from me!”

“Sounds like you have good reason to be mad,” Rosie said with some sympathy.

“Too right! And I’ve never gotten over Jasmine, I really haven’t. She’s the one, I know it. But Chase ruined her! She became obsessed with him. Even after he broke it off with her, she wouldn’t admit it. She’s too proud, she can’t admit when she made a mistake, so she’s become delusional instead. She thinks she and Chase are going to end up back together and they’re just taking a break. A blip. She can’t understand that he’s just a nasty, manipulative, lying, cheating, abusive, horrible—”

“We get the picture. You hate Chase. Back to that night.”

“I was trying to kill him with alcohol. You know, alcohol poisoning. It’s a thing. People drink too much, and they can die. Or maybe they get so drunk they walk in front of a car.” Tyler shrugged. “That’s what I wanted to happen to him. So I bought shot, after shot, after shot. I don’t know how I’m going to pay my credit card bill this month.”

“He’s gone missing,” Rosie said, “so maybe it worked. Tell us about Brandon.”

Tyler gave us a grim smile. “I hope it did work, I really hope it did. Okay. Brandon? Was that the guy’s name? I honestly did forget. Anyway, Brandon, he works with Chase, right?”

“Right.”

“He’s not my kind of person either. He’s probably a bit like Chase. Nicer, but a similar type—a bit flashy, a bit too full of himself. But he and I… I got the impression he was on the same page as me. Regarding Chase. He saw Chase was pretty drunk already, and he still ordered another shot for him. When he did that, he and I, we… we looked at each other. We nodded at each other and we exchanged a look. We didn’t say anything, but it was like we both understood: Let’s get this guy to drink until he’s dead.”

Rosie and I sat back on the sofa, both of us a little skeptical.

“You could tell that from a look in his eye?” Rosie said.

“Yep. What can I say? You saw the footage, right? You should ask Brandon, maybe he saw it differently. Maybe he thought we were just being generous to the bachelor. But I don’t think so.” Tyler shook his head with conviction. “I don’t.”

“Why didn’t you tell us this last time?” I asked.

“Why didn’t I tell you I was trying to kill him? Umm, because I thought it would make me look bad?”

“Now that does make sense,” I said. “Tell us about the rest of your evening.”

“I stuck around for a while. Brandon and Chase talked about work stuff. ‘Talk’ is a bit of an overstatement, Chase wasn’t making much sense. He kept repeating himself and speaking nonsense. But we played along with it and just encouraged him to drink more and more.”

“But your impression was that Brandon didn’t like Chase. Did you get any hints as to why not? Was it something to do with work? Personal?”

“He didn’t tell me. But when you hate someone that much, it’s got to be personal, right?”

“Not necessarily. For some people work is the most important thing in their life.”

“Yeah. I guess.” Tyler held out his palms. “He didn’t say anything about it. It’s just my impression that he didn’t like him. You’ll have to ask him yourself.”

“We will. Okay, you left eventually,” I said. “Before Brandon.”

“Yes. I stayed there feeding him shots as long as I could, but my credit card was near its limit. I didn’t know Brandon so I couldn’t expect him to cover me for any more drinks. But it looked like he was doing exactly what I wanted to do anyway—trying to kill Chase with liquor. So I left them to it.”

“You went home?”

“That’s right. I walked all the way back here. I was too tapped out to get a ride. It took me nearly two hours. But Chase is missing now, so—” A cold smile fell on his lips as he crushed his empty can, “—it was worth it.”

CHAPTER NINE

B

randon Silvio lived in a modern development full of aspirational young families and couples who intended to start one. Rosie had dug up some information on him while we waited for his workday to end.

We knew Brandon had a wife—Toni—and had been married for just over three years. No children yet, but judging by the house and the neighborhood, they were probably penciled in for some time in the next couple of years.

Rosie and I waited in the car with the a/c running on the opposite side of the street until we saw Brandon pull up into his driveway.

Toni came to the door to greet him.

“Aww, it’s like a scene from the nineteen-fifties!” Rosie said with delight. “Like one of those television shows. Ooh, look, they’ve got one of those video-camera doorbells! It really could be a show!”

“You can see the type of doorbell from here?”

“I’ve been researching them. Just in case.”

I didn’t ask in case of what.

Brandon was a good-looking guy in his thirties with lustrous thick dark hair and an athletic frame. He exited the car with a bounce in his step and a satchel slung over his shoulder. With a smile on his face he headed for the door where Toni was waiting.

“Hi, honey, I’m home!” Rosie said. Maybe she really could lipread? She switched to a higher-pitched voice, “I missed you, light and love of my life! I’ve cooked your favorite: pot-roast. Shall I mix you a martini while you get changed, dear?”

We watched a little longer.

Things did not go well.

“I… don’t think that’s what they’re saying…” I said while I watched the scene unfold.

“No,” Rosie agreed.

The perfect tableaux was fracturing. The seams were showing. Instead of a happy wife greeting her husband on his way home, we had an angry wife who seemed to be scolding him. She was wagging a finger at him with one hand, the other was resting on her hip, elbow jutting out. Her cheeks were getting red.

We hopped out of the car and went to join them. Maybe we could defuse the situation and grab a couple of moments with Brandon right away. Or maybe we’d hear something juicy.

As we got closer, Toni stepped in toward Brandon and pressed her head into his shoulder.

“Aww, they made up,” Rosie said.

We got close enough to hear just as we saw Toni’s head jerk backward and her finger began gesticulating again.

“Whose perfume is that?!” she demanded. “And don’t tell me it’s your cologne, it is not your cologne.” Her pointing finger was joined by the thumb and they became pincers. They latched onto the shoulder of his shirt. “And what’s this? What’s this?”

Rosie and I slowed our walk, coming to a stop just at the edge of their driveway. We didn’t want to interrupt. Not while we might hear something interesting.

Toni held her fingers and whatever was grasped between them in the air in front of her husband. Whatever Toni was holding was invisible at our distance. But we could guess.

“Hair,” I said. “Not his.”

“I was with a client,” Brandon said emphatically. “You know how it is in real estate. You know. We hug each other, it’s what we do! What am I gonna do?” Brandon mimed making a cross with the index fingers of both hands. “Get back, get back, give me all your money but don’t you dare hug me!”

“You don’t get that much perfume on you from a hello-hug.”

“Clearly, you do! The crazy lady must have bathed in it. Maybe she smashed the bottle and it went all over her, I don’t know.”

“That could have happened,” Rosie whispered to me.

“No way,” I whispered back.

“Can I help you!” Mrs. Brandon Silvio called, having spotted us loitering on the edge of her driveway.

It was action time.

A

few minutes later, we were in Brandon’s Idiot Cave, as Toni so kindly named it, while Brandon had muttered something sullenly about it being his home office.

There was a large screen television on one wall with a La-Z-Boy recliner in front of it. There was a desk against another wall that didn’t look like it saw much action, being bare except for a framed photo of Brandon with Felix, Chase, and a few others from Sabertooth. Hanging on the wall above was a small wedding photo from Brandon and Toni’s wedding.

“So you’re the PIs that Felix hired,” Brandon said. “He said to help you any way I can. So. Shoot.”

He took the recliner, while I got an office chair and Rosie got a dining chair pulled in from another room.

“What do you think happened to Chase?” I asked to kick things off.

“Man, I have no idea. It’s like he just disappeared.”

“It is,” I agreed. “But what’s your guess, what does your intuition tell you happened to him?”

“I figure one of two things. Either he didn’t want to marry Lia so he skipped town, or… his night ended badly.”

“How might it have ended badly?” Rosie asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe he got lost and fell asleep in a storm sewer and didn’t wake up.”

“That’s quite specific,” I said.

Brandon nodded. “I watched an episode of CSI last night where they were down in the tunnels.” He shrugged. “You asked me to guess, and that was what I came up with.”

“Okay. Let’s get move away from the guessing, let’s switch to things we know.”

“Yeah, I prefer to stick to facts,” Brandon said with a nod.

I wondered if he thought he was showing some kind of powerplay by taking the fanciest chair, the big leather recliner. If that had been his plan, it didn’t work. Sitting up on the office chair, straight-backed, I was staring down at him while he was slouched below me.

“You were with Chase the night he disappeared. Tell us what you did, what you spoke about, and how you left him.”

Brandon nodded eagerly, like he was really keen to help. Or really keen to look like he was helping.

“He finished work early on the Friday, went out with his old buddies from college. Had a suite at the Tremonte. He was making a weekend of it. Obviously, I couldn’t join for the whole thing.” Brandon gave a meaningful nod toward the rest of the house, eyebrows raised, a ya understand what I’m getting at look on his face.

“Your wife wouldn’t like it?” Rosie said.

“Exactly.”

“But otherwise, you would have liked to have spent the whole weekend with him?” I asked.

“More like I’d like to spend a weekend relaxing, you know? Experience the city the way the tourists get to, not us poor schmucks who have to work every day. It would be fun, staying in a hotel suite, going out for a couple of drinks, maybe playing the slots or poker or whatever. But, no, Toni wouldn’t like that.”

“He was with his college friends,” Rosie said. “It was probably very cliquey.”

“Yeah, I guess. Maybe I would have felt like the odd one out. Still would have been fun to have a couple of nights away from the—from Toni.”

I wondered what he’d stopped himself from saying after the. Not ‘the love of my life’, I suspected.

“Go on,” I said. “Your evening with Chase.”

“Right, yeah, so I joined him for a couple of drinks on Saturday night. His buddies were setting up a room party, pretty wild from what I hear.” He leaned forward. “A real Vegas party, ya know what I mean?”

I shook my head. “No idea,” I said, deadpan.

Rosie shrugged, held up her palms beside her shoulders. “Me neither.”

Brandon shifted awkwardly in his recliner. “Uh, y’know. Some drinks. Some, y’know. Exotic dancers.”

“Oh, like from the Islands?” Rosie asked, eyes glinting.

I tried to keep a straight, serious face.

“Uh, yeah. I guess. Anyway, I don’t know about all that, I just had a quiet drink with Chase down in the bar.”

“Right. We watched the security footage,” I told him.

He looked startled for a moment, then got his features back under control. “Yeah, of course you would. They… the Tremonte, they just let you watch it? All the security footage?”

“Chase was—is, he hasn’t checked out—a guest. They’re very eager to find out what happened to him.”

“Oh, yeah, I guess they would be. That makes sense.”

“So, a quiet couple of drinks? That’s how you want to put it? Just you and Chase?”

Brandon smacked his head the way you do when you’re pretending you’d completely forgotten something obvious. Maybe people do it when it really happens, too, but I generally only see it when people are faking it.

“And some other guy. Taylor.”

“Tyler.”

“Right. Yeah. He was at college with Chase as well, but he wasn’t as close friends with him. He just dropped by for a drink like me. He was there first. He and Chase had been hitting it pretty hard.”

“Yep,” I agreed, and let him carry on.

“It was a special occasion, so we bought Chase a few drinks. Shots. To celebrate. I gotta tell ya, he got pretty tipsy. You have to, don’t you, on your bachelor party?”

“I’ve never had a bachelor party,” I said.

“Right. Yeah. I mean, it’s tradition is what I mean. It’s what people do. So me and Taylor—Tyler, whatever, we wanted to be nice to him. So we bought him a lot of shots. Tyler left after a while. It was just me and Chase. We had a good talk, about work and stuff. A few more drinks. Then that was that.”

“What was what?” Rosie said.

“The end of the evening. I said goodnight.”

“Yeah, can you explain that part for us?” I said.

“Uh, he wanted to go somewhere, so I walked him outside and sent him on his way.”

“Details,” Rosie said. “We need details.”

“Umm. If I tell you something, can you promise not to tell Felix? Or Lia?”

“No, but we can promise not to tell them unless it’s absolutely necessary,” I said. “That’s the best you’re going to get. But just so you know, we’re not in the business of blabbing when we don’t have to. Let me guess. There’s another woman involved?”

Brandon hesitated, but it was the kind of hesitation that told me nailed it. I raised my eyebrows at him.

“Okay, okay, but you can’t tell him I told you this—he’ll kill me—and please don’t let Felix or Lia know, they’ll kill him.”

“When you say ‘kill’, do you mean literally?” Rosie asked sweetly.

“Uh. No. I mean… I mean they’ll be really mad. Like, end of the world mad. Felix has got a temper, you know? Man, you don’t even want to be in the room when he’s going off. Once, he was yelling at this guy who’s not even in my department, on the other side of the office, and I was frickin’ trembling. I think the guy had a literal heart attack.”

“We’ll try not to get on his bad side. Now, please, continue. What was it you wanted to tell us?”

I like to slip that in there—want to tell us. Keep him a bit indignant and off-kilter. I knew he wanted to argue that he didn’t want to tell us anything, but that was going to be a futile argument. After swallowing, and licking his lips, and rubbing his hands on his knees, he continued.

“While we were talking, after Tyler left, Chase was rambling. You know he’d had quite a few drinks—”

“—A lot of drinks,” Rosie said.

“Uh, yeah. We were celebrating. He had a lot of drinks and his lips got loose, as they do. He told me about Friday night, you know, the first night of his bachelor weekend. He told me that he and his friends—he calls them The Boys, pretty cringe, right?—he told me that they went to a club, one with dancers. You know the type I mean, don’t you?”

“Exotic,” I said. “Like you said we’re going to be in the party room.”

“Exactly. So he told me about one that he’d met, one he knew. I think he’d known her for a while actually. He told me her name, I can’t remember exactly what it was, but clearly a fake one. Something like Luxury or something like that?”

“Delux?” I suggested.

“Yeah! Delux Diamond. That was it. He told me about her, and about how he wanted to go and see her again.”

“Yeah?”

“Yep. So I offered to walk him to a taxi. I accompanied him outside. Walked him down to the Strip.”

“Why didn’t he get one from in front of the Tremonte?” I asked. “There’s a taxi stand right there.”

“Oh, yeah. But he was pretty gone from all the shots. He needed some fresh air to sober him up. So we took a little stroll, just so he could get his head back together. About ten minutes, maybe twenty minutes later, he was ready to roll. I said goodnight to him and promised not to tell anyone where he was going.”

Rosie and I sat quietly, patiently.

“And, uh, that’s it.”

We sat quietly some more. Let him stew.

“Uh, that’s it. The end. I put him in a taxi, and he went to see the dancer.”

“The dancer who was upstairs in the suite,” I said. “Remember, you told us there were going to be dancers up there? Delux Diamond was one of them. So, why were you putting him in a taxi instead of the elevator?”

“Huh.” Brandon was quiet for a moment. Thinking. But thinking of a reason to explain Chase’s actions, or thinking of a way to get himself out of a hole he’d dug himself in, I wasn’t sure. “I guess he forgot? He was adamant he was going to her club. I mean, he was really drunk. That happens, right? I heard about guys who moved house, but they get drunk, and they go back to their old apartment!”

“Hmm,” I said, dubiously.

“I swear, it’s true,” Brandon said. “I didn’t know it was the same girl upstairs in the room, I really didn’t. Maybe Chase didn’t even know? Had his friends even told him exactly who the, uh, dancers were?”

“Why’d you give him so many drinks?” Rosie asked.

“It was a celebration.”

“Were you trying to hurt him?”

“Huh? Hurt him? What do you mean? We bought him drinks to celebrate. How could that hurt him?”

“You’ve never heard of alcohol-related injuries? Or alcohol poisoning?” Rosie said, raising an eyebrow skeptically. “Interesting.”

“I guess I’ve heard of that, for alcoholics. Not young guys in their prime like us. We were just having fun.”

“Tyler told us he was trying to murder Chase with alcohol.”

Brandon swallowed, blinked, gulped. “Uh, he said that?”

“Yep,” I confirmed with a nod. “And he thought you were in on it, too.”

“I didn’t even know that guy!”

“Nonetheless. He thought you and him were on the same page. You had a connection. That you both hated Chase and wanted to kill him, so you fed him shot after shot after shot.”

“No way! If I wanted to hurt someone I wouldn’t waste that much money! I’d, y’know, take ’em outside.” He punched his palm. “Not treat them to a load of drinks. Nuh-uh, I don’t know what that Tyler guy is talking about, it wasn’t like that, not at all. Not for me, anyhow.”

“You drank hardly anything,” Rosie said.

Brandon shrugged. “Yeah, it wasn’t my bachelor party! And I had stuff to do on Sunday. I couldn’t be out all night. That’s what I told Chase—make the most of the single life. Soon you’ll be married and you won’t be allowed to do this anymore.”

“So from your perspective, you bought drinks for Chase to celebrate, and then put him in a taxi so he could go and meet Delux Diamond at the club she worked in. Is that a fair summary?”

“Yes,” he said emphatically. “That’s what happened. I wouldn’t listen to that Tyler guy. What does he even do? He seemed a bit—sorry if I sound mean—of a loser, you know?”

“Thanks for that insight.” Brandon started to get to his feet and I shook my head at him. “We’ll see ourselves out, we want to talk to your wife.”

We closed the door on the Idiot Cave and found Toni. She was waiting out in the hallway, and we stood by the front door to talk.

“Was there anything notable about Brandon that evening?” I asked. “Anything that sticks in your mind? Anything unusual?”

Toni lifted her eyebrows dramatically and sighed. “He was drunk! I don’t like him going out drinking, but he does it anyway. It’s always for business, or for an old friend, or because he needs to relax, or…” Toni sighed, shook her head in exasperation. “I hate it.”

“And that night?” I probed.

“He went out and came back late! I was already asleep. He told me it was midnight he came back. Midnight! He still reeked of whiskey in the morning. Yuck.”

“Did he seem different, strange in any way?”

“He spent most of the day in there.” She nodded back to his home office. “I didn’t really speak to him until dinner time on Sunday. He was working off his hangover. Wasted the whole day!”

“Do you know Chase?”

Toni’s frown came back. “Yeah, he’s a bad influence on Brandon. I don’t like him much. It’s sad he’s missing. But you know—he won’t be missed. Not be me, anyway.”

We fished for more information from Toni but didn’t get anything useful beyond a few more snipes at her husband and Chase. But that was okay. Our visit had been a success, and Brandon had told us a lot more than I think he thought he had.

“Something’s fishy about that guy,” Rosie said.

She was right.

There was something very fishy indeed.

And I knew exactly what we needed to do next.

CHAPTER TEN

B

ut Brandon’s fishiness notwithstanding, we had bigger fish to fry for the moment.

Okay, not fry—eat.

And come to think of it, it wasn’t fish we were going to be eating.

It was Tuesday evening, which meant Rosie and Max were having their newly inaugurated pizza night. Stone and I were taking the opportunity to have a date night instead.

Stone was still grumpy about Rosie and Max repeating their visit to Call of Pizza on the same day of the week as last time, so it was best we didn’t join them. Stone was going to be a lot more fun if it was just me and him instead of all of us in the pizza bar while Stone constantly scanned for hostiles.

Besides, it was rare enough that we got a chance to slip away, just the two of us. With work, friends, and family, it seemed there was almost always a third through tenth wheel around. But not tonight. Once we dropped Rosie off, it was going to be just me and my man, my beau, my rock, my Stone.

“Looking good,” I said to him as he appeared on my threshold, dressed to impress.

His lips twitched in what I took to be ecstatic delight at the compliment, and then he gave me one back, in his deep, serious, heartfelt tone. He told me I looked ravishing, which was enough to make my cheeks blush even redder than the blusher I’d applied. Ravishing was not a word I heard used much, and never directed my way and I found it gave me a delicious tingle.

We were both wearing our best jeans, and a very fresh-looking eggshell-blue shirt clung snugly to Stone’s torso. It fit so well it could have been tailor-made for him.

I was wearing a new blouse, which was a replacement for one that had been attacked by some kind of permanent-staining hot sauce. I’m sure it must have happened during the night, while I was sleeping, because I couldn’t imagine that I could have spilled it on me. Not me, no sir.

“What’s the schedule?” Stone asked me as we planned out the evening ahead.

In an attempt to match Stone’s conversational style, I adopted a gruff tone and switched to tough-guy speak.“We drop Rosie off at oh eighteen hundred and fifty minutes—”

“Eighteen fifty-five,” Stone corrected, amused.

“Right. And then we roll over to our target destination. We have a reservation at Carlucci’s at seven p.m., sharp!”

Stone’s eyebrows came together and his head shook slightly. “Nineteen hundred. Not seven. You can’t mix up military time and regular, you’ll get us confused.”

“Oh, yeah, I can see that,” I said, nodding seriously. “We could easily accidentally spend twelve hours and two minutes traveling next door, for a seven a.m. breakfast-dinner reservation!”

Stone gave me a quick kiss to stop me being such a genius, and then we grabbed Rosie and we were on our way.

We met Max in the parking lot of the pizza joint. He was standing beside Jan’s truck—she’d been tasked with Max’s delivery to the pizza restaurant.

“Yay! You’re joining us!” Rosie said to Jan.

“Nope. No can do. Got a meet.” She patted one of her powerlifting arms with the hand of the other.

“Ooh, you should have told us. We could have come to support you!”

Jan shook her head, then lifted her chin in the direction of the pizza restaurant.

“Some things are more important.”

“Pizza is not more important than friendship!” Rosie said, shocked.

Jan clasped two big hands on Rosie’s not-big shoulders and leaned over to look her in the eyes.

“Isn’t it, Rosie? It’s pepperoni we’re talking about here.” Then Jan’s face broke into a grin, she said goodbye, and jumped back into her truck.

“Let’s get this pizza party started!” Max said to Rosie. “It’s just us. The Dream Team!”

“Dreamy, more like,” Stone said with a gruff chuckle.

“Did he just call us cute?” Max said to Rosie.

“I think so!”

“He meant you’ve got your head in the clouds,” I explained to them. “Have fun. We’ll catch you later.”

“Sure we can’t interest you in some pizza instead of Italian?” Rosie said.

“Not tonight, thanks. Also, you know where pizza comes from, right?”

Rosie tilted her head. “New York. Later, boss!”

I got back into the passenger side of Stone’s truck and we took the hundred-yard drive to Carlucci’s, which was virtually next door, but you had to get back on the road to get there in safety.

We had a table in the back corner, which was one of the better seats in the restaurant. We’d been there before and found that the only advantage to a window seat was if you enjoyed people gawking at you from the parking lot. There was no view to speak of, but you were lit up like shop mannequins for anyone checking the restaurant out before coming inside.

Stone said it made the window diners perfect targets for a sniper. He was kidding. But, also, he wasn’t.

So a back corner it was.

There was a candle between us on the table, and fancy burgundy napkins folded into swans. We perused the menu carefully while pretending to be much more sophisticated than we were.

“They’ve got pizza!” I said with perhaps too much enthusiasm.

“Go for it,” Stone said.

I shook my head. “No. I should get something different. I have pizza a hundred times a week what with Jan always being about. She’s addicted.”

“Do we need to hold an intervention?” Stone’s tone was deathly serious, which is how I knew he was joking.

I grinned at him. “Hey, you wanna share a Caprese salad to start?”

“Good idea. They always have excellent tomatoes here.”

“The mozzarella here is really good, too,” I said. The mozzarella was the most important ingredient, obviously. Tomatoes are just tomatoes, but a good mozzarella? Mmm.

“And,” Stone said, a knowing twinkle in his eye. “Their olive oil is exquisite.”

“Exquisite?” I raised my eyebrows at him. Exquisite was not a very Stoney word.

“Yep.” He leaned across the table, caught my eye. “I got an oil guy. Olive oil.”

I leaned back in my chair, closed my menu, and smiled. Stone had a whole harem of men (though sometimes his guys turned out to be women—Jan had been his ‘tech guy’ before Rosie and I stole her and promoted her to ‘friend’.)

“An oil guy?”

“Yeah. Remember I helped out that friend last week? We used to work together, in—” Stone gestured outside the restaurant. It meant they worked together somewhere else in the world. Afghanistan or Libya or London or Cairo or maybe Reno. “—Anyway, they’re getting into the olive oil business. There’s more to it than you’d think. Different grades, different qualities, different flavors. It’s like wine.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yep. But there’s a problem, at least in this country, with fakes.”

“Fake olive oil? Do they slip some crude oil in there to water it down?”

Stone smiled in amusement. “No. They mix lower-grade olive oil in with the higher-grade—extra virgin with light, that kind of thing. Sometimes even other base oils. My buddy wanted me to look into a supplier, to see if they can be trusted or whether they were likely to rip him off.”

“Ooh. What did you conclude?”

“I concluded that the supplier had prices too good to be genuine, unfortunately. They’d probably send a genuine sample and then do a bait-and-switch. It’s some American guy based in the south of Italy who’s now in the business of ripping off his compatriots from afar by shipping them substandard EVOO. My oil guy probably isn’t going to be an oil guy for much longer. Gonna look for something else to do.”

“Oh. Shame.”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, I’ve decided.”

“Yeah? What’re you going for?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I just decided that it’s definitely not pizza,” I said. “That’s what I’ve decided. I should try something new. Nanna’s always trying new things, she says it helps her stay young.”

“You should have whatever you want to have,” Stone told me. “Don’t order something you don’t want just to be different.”

“Hmm. I won’t. I’ll order something new because I want to order something new.”

“That’s an excellent reason, then. And if you don’t like it, we’ll order a pizza to share to supplement it.”

“You’re a genius, Stone.”

So we ordered a Caprese salad to share, and, resisting the urge to cave and get a pizza, I ordered a Rigatoni all’Amatriciana, after spending a few minutes practicing how to say it. It still sounded like I had a whole mozzarella ball in my mouth when I said it. The dish had guanciale, pecorino cheese, and some hot chili in it in a smoky sauce. Stone ordered Pasta alla Norma which was an eggplant and ricotta thing on penne pasta. They both sounded really good on the menu and I was excited to try a couple of new—to us—dishes.

Our Caprese salad arrived with some Italian bread and a bowl of olive oil to dip it in.

“Is this fake?” I peered at it suspiciously.

“I very much doubt it,” Stone said. “This restaurant is owned by actual Italians. They’d rather kill their own mother than serve fake olive oil.”

“That serious?”

“Perhaps a slight exaggeration. Unless they don’t like their mother much. But no, they wouldn’t be serving fake oil, I’m sure of it. So, enjoy. It’s the real deal.”

The bread was so good it was hard to judge the quality of the oil alongside it. It seemed nice enough though, with a slight fruitiness and a tinge of pepper.

“Nice oil,” I said to the server when she dropped by.

She was an Italian lady, perhaps in her fifties, and when I said that she broke into a wide smile, and to my surprise reached out and clasped two hands around one of mine.

“Thank you! Thank you!” She turned her head around to scan the other diners. “These others, they do not notice! But you! You see! You taste! You know!” She gave my hand another firm squeeze.

“That’s me,” I agreed.

“She’s a bit of a foodie,” Stone said to the server.

“A true expert!”

The server walked away happy. I think I even heard her saying mamma mia to herself but I could have been imagining it.

“I should cook pasta,” I announced, almost as much to my surprise as Stone’s.

“Yeah?”

“Yes,” I said a lot more firmly than I was expecting. “Thursday. Let’s do it. I’ll make some pasta. Something new, something we haven’t done before.”

“That sounds great.”

“And you can help me!” I grabbed Stone’s wrist. “A date, a cooking date.”

Stone’s lips turned up. “I’ll bring some olive oil. The good stuff. Maybe I can make a salad.”

I rolled my eyes at that. “We’ll see about that. You’ve got to help me with the pasta, though. It’ll be fun.”

“Yes ma’am,” Stone said, positively full-on smiling now.

Then, his smile froze. Stone tilted his head like he was Bridget listening to a possible squirrel.

“Is that…?” he said, mostly to himself, and stood up, heading for the door.

Confused, I left my napkin on the table and followed Stone. While he sometimes acted in ways that surprised me, there were always good reasons for them—except for the times when the reason for the behavior wasn’t good, but bad. An icy pit in my stomach told me this could be one of the latter situations.

“Back in a moment,” I said to the server as she gave me a questioning look when I passed her.

As I walked across the restaurant, I heard what Stone must have heard, some pops, or bangs, coming from nearby.

My blood ran cold.

They were gunshots.

And they were coming from the direction of the pizza parlor.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

I

ran the rest of the way across the restaurant.

Stone was already slipping out the door and I hurried out after him. My hand was dipping into my bag and then I realized I only had my small clutch with me. No gun.

I grabbed Stone’s arm as he stopped to listen again. Tires squealed and an engine roared but then quickly faded as it was absorbed into the general noise of the continuous Las Vegas traffic.

“What’d you hear?”

I’d heard guns. I hoped he’d heard something else. Fireworks. Cars backfiring. Anything but gunfire.

“Ak-47,” he said grimly. “Then an AR-10.” Stone was silent for a moment. “I think. It was hard to tell over the noise of the restaurant.”

“Was it coming from…?” I nodded in the direction of Call of Pizza. Another question I knew the answer to. Another question I hoped I was wrong about.

Stone gave me a grim nod. “Yes. It’s quiet now. Whatever happened, has happened.”

I knew he was right, but I hated the certainty in his voice.

Stone and I moved at a trot across the parking lot, and this time we were going to take the non-pedestrian-friendly route. Stone moved slightly hunched over, eyes darting, head constantly scanning, listening, looking, feeling. Clasped between two hands was a semi-automatic pistol, ready to aim and fire the moment a threat emerged. But none came. Like he said, whatever had happened, had happened.

At the edge of Carlucci’s lot, we clambered over a low metal fence and stepped into the patch of scrub that divided this plot from its neighbor.

We picked our way through stony sand, strewn with angry, thorny bushes and cacti. Down, then back up a steep drainage ditch. I was glad I was wearing jeans, but my hands and arms still found out the hard way how inhospitable this route was. A few scratches later, we reached the edge of the pizza place lot and stepped over another low fence.

Stone tucked his gun into the holster under his leather jacket, and raised his arms. Not quite a surrender, but a gesture that said he meant no harm. I mirrored him as we walked toward the door of Call of Pizza.

Standing in front of the restaurant door was Slice Sergeant Syke, a rifle held against his chest. His eyes locked on us as we crossed the lot toward him. He saw Stone’s raised hands, and recognized us from the week before, giving a stern raise of his chin in acknowledgment.

He was still standing like a sentinel, eyes locked on the parking lot’s entrance and exit where it connected to the highway beyond when we reached him.

“Sit-rep?” Stone said

I didn’t wait to listen.

With my heart pounding in my chest and my stomach an icy ball I hurried into the restaurant. Two guns immediately trained on me—handguns—in the firm double-handed professional grip of people who knew what they were doing. They were two separate diners from two separate tables. Each of them had a stony-faced woman sitting at their table. The kind of look you get when someone has really, really, ruined pizza night.

I held my hands up to show I meant no harm, but I didn’t stop.

I had my eyes on the corner we’d sat in last time, the corner where Max and Rosie had been eating.

Someone was laid out, their white sneakers visible behind a chair and the hulk of the crouched form of the pizza chef. Over his shoulder on a strap was hung another big rifle, the same model, I think, as that held by the slice sergeant guarding the entrance.

Suddenly, Rosie popped up. She’d been crouching down, hidden behind the table, chairs, and cook.

“They shot Max!” Rosie said.

“Again!” said a shaky voice from the floor.

Relief flooded through me at the sound of his voice. The cook stood and turned to face me.

“Minor wound on the arm. I’ve given it a field dressing. Ambulance ETA five minutes.”

Strong arms wrapped around me from behind. Stone. I turned my head awkwardly to try and look at him above and behind me. He kissed the top of my head.

“What happened?” I asked.

“A vehicle pulled into the lot about three minutes ago,” said the cook. “Make that four. I was eyes-on-screen when two contacts exited. They had ski masks and were carrying AK-47s. Not the kind of customers we’re trying to attract. I identified them as hostiles and signaled Sergeant Syke to rally. We were still arming when they came in. They scanned the room, spotted the target.” He nodded down at Max. “The tangos moved to engage. They chose the wrong shop. They found themselves on the wrong end of two AR-10s and—” He looked at the other two armed customers. “A point four-four and a three-five-seven. We went weapons hot. They turned tail and ran, but they got off a couple of discharges before they left.”

The cook nodded to Stone to continue.

“Syke went to the door to secure the AO. He fired warning shots into the air over the vehicle to encourage their hasty departure. The perimeter is secure, no further contacts have been ID’d.”

Sirens screamed outside as cop cars and ambulances began to pour into the lot.

Max quietly sobbed.

Rosie was wringing her hands in angst.

Stone stood, a grim sentinel.

And my Rigatoni all’Amatriciana was getting cold.

T

he pizza chef combat medic gave Max a dose of morphine, and by the time he was bundled onto a stretcher and wheeled away, he was happily zonked out. Rosie left to ride in the ambulance with Max.

“We’ll meet you at the hospital,” I told her with a reassuring squeeze of her arm before she left.

When Max and Rosie were gone, we gave the police statements, thanked the two pizza shop owners again, and then I interlinked my arm with Stone as we crossed back over the parking lot, this time at a more sedate pace. We still got scratched by the cacti and thorny bushes again though.

Back in Carlucci’s, we found that our meals had been neatly boxed up in expectation of our return.

“I knew you’d be back, I knew you’d be back,” said our waitress, relieved to see us again.

After paying and leaving a generous tip for the trouble, we took the food to Stone’s truck and I did a taste-test while he drove.

“Here, try this,” I said, feeding Stone a forkful of Rigatoni all’Amatriciana.

He chewed it thoughtfully then gave a satisfied nod.

“That is excellent,” he said. “The chili gives it a nice kick.”

“I know, right? It probably would have been even better in the restaurant, but it’s pretty darn good, isn’t it?”

“Yep.”

“You were right,” I told him, eventually. He was too much of a good person to have said it, but he must have been thinking it.

“Unfortunately.”

“He should have listened to you,” I said. “He could have stayed safe.”

“Yep.” We stopped at a light, and Stone turned to me. “What are we going to do about him?”

I smiled. “You’re not completely going to wash your hands of him, then?”

Stone quirked a half-smile. “I figure you’ll like me better if I don’t do that.”

“You figured right, mister.”

“He should be more amenable to reason now,” Stone said after a moment’s contemplation. “That bullet will have knocked some sense into him.”

“I sure hope so. If it didn’t, you have my full and enthusiastic permission to kick him to the curb.”

“Noted.”

When we got to the hospital, Rosie sent a message to my phone saying that she was in a waiting room, so Stone and I took a few minutes to finish our dinner with an in-car picnic. When the food was gone, we were ready to roll.

Rosie was pacing up and down inside a waiting room, and when she saw us she hurried over to me. “Quick, I found something.”

What could Rosie have possibly found inside a hospital?

“It’s not bad guys, is it?” Stone asked.

“No,” Rosie said. “I think it might be a good girl.”

Confused, we followed her until she stopped in front of an information board listing all the different departments, sections, specialists, and wings, and pointed an incriminating finger at one of them.

Ahh! I’d almost forgotten about that.

“The Bridget Black Pediatrics Ward,” Rosie said. “Is that a relative of yours? Did you name your dog after them?”

I shook my head.

“No. Actually, the wing was named after my dog.” I shrugged, like it was the kind of thing that happened all the time.

“Boss! First, you didn’t tell me you had a dog. And second, you didn’t tell me your dog was a doctor?!”

“No, Bridget isn’t a doctor. She’s a dog, Rosie.” Rosie nodded like, yeah, that made sense. “Jack donated the money for the ward and had it named after Bridget. There was a whole opening ceremony and everything. They didn’t allow animals here before, but thanks to Jack and Bridget, they now allow furry friends for therapeutic purposes on some of the wards. That was one of the stipulations of the donation.”

“Wow. I wonder if I can get something named after Snowflake?”

“Maybe if they open a department specializing in mercurial tempers,” I suggested.

Rosie beamed at the thought. “How much do you think I need to donate?”

“Umm. A few million?”

Rosie tapped her chin thoughtfully. “I don’t think I have that.”

“No, I don’t suppose you do, Rosie. Keep saving those paychecks!”

“Will do, boss. Any chance of a hospital wing-sized bonus?”

“Afraid not.”

Rosie nodded. “Max is fine. They said the shock was worse than the bullet wound. But the morphine helped with that. He’s going to be right as rain.”

“Glad to hear. But we’re going to have to seriously consider how to keep him that way.”

Rosie didn’t argue with that.

Half an hour later, we were sitting by Max’s bedside. He’d only sustained a mild wound, barely a scratch, but the dose of morphine he’d received meant he was still very woozy.

“I’m sorry, Stone!” he said, reaching out a grasping hand to clutch Stone’s arm but missing. “I’ll listen to you from now on. I will, always!”

Stone frowned back at him, wanting to make sure Max knew just how lucky he had been, and how seriously he needed to take this situation.

“Someone could have gotten hurt,” Stone said finally.

“Someone did get hurt!” Max said. “Me!”

“Someone who didn’t deserve it, I mean,” Stone clarified.

Max forlornly nodded, admitting that yeah, he kind of had it coming to him. Not that anyone deserves to be shot at, but he had ignored the advice and help he’d generously been given and now it had come back to bite him.

“Can you… will you help me again?”

Stone gave Max another long, hard stare that had him gulping and clutching nervously at his sheet.

“Will you behave?”

Max quickly nodded and promised that he would.

“Okay. I think I know just the place.”

Max and Rosie both immediately wanted to know where, but Stone wasn’t revealing anything.

CHAPTER TWELVE

T

he next day, Rosie was both worried and relieved about Max. Relieved that the attempt on his life had failed and that he was going to be taking his own safety and security seriously, but worried that this wasn’t over.

“Why do you think they’re after him?” Rosie asked me as we drove.

“It’s not revenge, he hasn’t hurt anyone. So they must be trying to get him because he knows something. It’s got to relate to his accountancy work. There must have been something in the books that someone doesn’t want found.”

“That means we’ve got to find it,” Rosie said.

“We’re not accountants. It means Max has to find it. Then when he does, perhaps we can help him.”

“If Stone ever lets me see him again, I’m going to make sure Max really digs into it. Really push him. He can figure it out, I know he can. He’s a really good accountant, you know?”

“I’m sure he is. Perhaps Jan can help him hack into his company’s computer system so he can get access to all the files again.”

“Good idea. Then he should be able to find whatever it is those people don’t want to be found.”

“And don’t worry, Stone will let you see him again. He’s just doing what he can to protect him. And for now, that means he’s bundled away somewhere secure.”

Stone had been out very late the night before, getting a fresh vehicle and then bundling Max into it and taking him off to who-knows-where. Stone had a very self-satisfied air when he returned. I’d asked him if I could ask him where he’d taken Max, and he said he wasn’t sure if he should answer that so I dropped it. I wasn’t that curious. I had enough other things on my plate to wonder about without needing to know the exact location of Rosie’s brother at all times.

Rosie and I were back on our case, and after a late breakfast at hers, we were following up on Brandon’s story. We pulled into a mostly empty parking lot. It wasn’t because the business it served was unsuccessful, but because at this time of the day, it wasn’t busy. Wednesday mornings aren’t primetime for a strip club.

“Dancing Gems,” Rosie said, reading the neon sign that stood atop two stilt-like legs on the flat roof of the bar, flickering twenty-four hours a day. “Where the ladies are hot and the dancing never stops. Have you ever been here before, boss?”

“Nope,” I shook my head. “I’ve been to a few of these joints, but not this particular one.”

“Stone hasn’t taken you here on a date?”

I snorted. This was both a very un-date-like place and a very un-Stone-y kind of joint.

“He should,” Rosie said. “It would be a heck of a surprise. They say that’s good for relationships, keeping things fresh.”

“I’m not sure all surprises are good ones. Okay, let’s get in there and see how the rest of Chase’s evening went after he left Brandon.”

The place had an aroma of stale beer and an even stronger one of air freshener trying to mask it. The mid-morning crowd was thin, and although there were several small stages, as well as a larger main stage, only one was currently occupied.

A woman just a few years younger than me was testing the structural integrity of a shiny metal pole by throwing her body weight this way and that as she clung onto it using a variety of combinations of limbs, while bass-heavy music boomed in the background. She had powerful muscles, and her skin was a canvas of tattoos, most of them jewelry or money-themed from what I could identify when parts of her were still long enough for me to focus on them.

There were two guys sitting at a table near the stage who looked like they’d been out all night, and there was another guy—his back turned away from the performance—sitting up at one of the bars with a huge plate of fried chicken and fries and a bucket-sized soda.

The lady at the door had told us this was the manager. Rosie and I went to sit down beside him.

The man turned to look at us. He was of indeterminate age, but if you really pushed me to nail it down, I’d tell you I was fifty percent certain that he was between thirty and fifty years old. He had one of those ageless faces. Not the ethereal, elfish type, but more the kind one develops from a life hard lived. He had thinning black hair and highly alert, darting eyes that flicked behind us half a dozen times to check if we’d brought trouble with us before we even got a greeting.

I guess our demeanor told him we weren’t there for the art of the performances on offer and that it was him we wanted to speak to. He frowned, but only a brief flash of one, then he set down the greasy chicken leg he was holding and grabbed a fistful of napkins.

After successfully smearing grease across his face and fingers, he held out a hand for me to shake.

“I’m Nicky. Who’re you?”

I told him who we were at that we were investigators and he briefly scowled, then shrugged.

“My top priority is to minimize trouble in my life. Right now, my intuition is telling me that if I answer your questions quickly you’ll leave me alone?”

“You’ve got good senses,” I said, pleased and relieved that he wasn’t starting with the intention of making this hard for us. “We’ve just got a few quick questions we’d love you to answer.”

“But if you don’t, we’ll make all the trouble we can,” Rosie added, a mischievous smile on his lips.

Nicky snorted. “Let’s get a table,” he said, nodding his head toward the closest round table with four chairs around it. “More comfortable than trying to keep eyes on two of you at the bar.”

On the stage, the girl had found the pole to be satisfactorily sturdy and having completed her inspection had exited the stage for a break. Now there was just background music with no show currently ongoing.

“Quiet morning?” Rosie asked.

Nicky shrugged. “Mornings usually are, once the sun’s up. Except Saturday mornings. They can be pretty busy.”

“A guy on a bachelor weekend came here a couple of weekends ago,” I said. “He was here on the Friday night, and we believe he came back on the Saturday as well. Could you take a look at his picture?”

“I’m not a snitch…” Nicky said, but he didn’t sound adamant. He was just figuring out what the path of least trouble was.

“He’s not in trouble. And no, we’re not investigating whether he had an affair and we’re not working for his wife.” Technically correct—he wasn’t married yet. “He’s gone missing and we want to find him.”

“You can show me a picture if you like. But Friday nights, Saturdays, they’re the busiest we get. I’m not going to remember some out-of-state bachelor party guy.”

“He’s from Las Vegas,” I said.

“And he had his bachelor weekend here?” Nicky considered it a moment, rubbing his chin and making it greasier. “Why not, huh? Why go out for burgers when you’ve got steak at home.”

I showed him a photo of Chase, and Nicky immediately began nodding.

“Oh, yeah, him. He’s a regular. Comes here two, three, times a month. Could be more, I’m not here all the time, but that’s what I’d guess.”

“That’s great. We know he was here on the Friday night. We need to know if he was here the next day too. He would have arrived between nine and ten in the evening if he made it.”

“We could check the footage from the entrance camera?” Nicky suggested, exceedingly helpfully. “See if he came in through the doors. Wait here a moment. I’ll get the iPad, we can check it on that.”

Nicky hurried away.

“He’s nice, isn’t he?” Rosie said.

“He’s helpful,” I said. “And I guess that’s a positive trait. He gets a point for that.”

Nicky returned with an iPad in a heavy, rubber protective case and a plasticky screen protector over the front. He bit his lip while he tapped at it, asking us to confirm the date and time a couple of times.

“Here, we’ll start it at eight forty-five, play it through at thirty-two speed, and pause it when anyone comes in, see if we can ID your guy.”

We did exactly that. We watched a couple of dozen people arrive and enter the bar, but none of them were Chase. Nicky sat with us, and let us keep watching until midnight, and then right through until two in the morning. Since we were going through at such high speed when no one was on the screen, it didn’t take long.

“Looks like your guy wasn’t here,” Nicky said with a shrug and a hint of regret.

Rosie and I exchanged a look—had Brandon lied to us? That was something to look into next.

“You have a performer called Delux Diamond?”

Nicky nodded. “Yep. She’s one of our best.”

“She’s a good dancer?” Rosie asked.

“Not bad. But she’s reliable. A real hustler. She’s here when she says she’ll be here, and she works hard, dang hard. She’s here now.” Nicky looked over to the empty stage the girl had been performing at, nodded at it. “Just finished. And she’ll be back tonight.”

“Is she still here, do you think? We’d love to speak to her.”

“Probably. She usually gets something to eat after. We do good chicken here, you should try it. Some people come here just for that, don’t even look at the stage.”

“That’s a good tip, thanks, but we’d love to speak to Ms. Diamond right now if at all possible. Several people have told us that Chase knew her.”

“Right on.” Nicky pushed himself to his feet, leaving a couple of greasy fingerprints on the glass top of the table. “Back in a jiffy.”

“Do you think he’s telling the truth about the food?” Rosie asked. “Should we try it?”

“We could do…”

“You sound hesitant, boss.”

“That’s because I am, Rosie. What if it actually is good?”

“Then that’ll be awesome! We’ll have found a great new place to eat. We could bring Nanna here, and your mom and dad, and…” Rosie’s words trailed off and she looked around the place again. “Oh. It might not be their vibe. Right?”

“Precisely. Nanna would probably get a kick out of it though.”

We talked through who else might enjoy coming to a strip club with us for a few minutes longer, and then Nicky appeared with Delux Diamond. She was a tanned girl, the good, sensible, side of thirty. Delux had put on jeans, sneakers, and a sleeveless top. I could see the array of tattoos down her arm, the largest of which was a huge gemstone of her namesake, with a banner underneath and Delux Diamond written across it.

“Tiffany, huh?” she said, nodding. “Oh yeah, I’ve worked with a bunch of Tiffanies, a whole bunch.” She looked me over carefully again. “I don’t think you was one of them though, was you?”

“Nope,” I said. “I haven’t ventured into this line of work.”

“Yet,” Rosie added.

Diamond gave me an appraising look. “How’s your cardio?”

“Not good enough,” I said. “And I’m not really here for advice on a career switch. I’m not so hot on physically demanding work. We wanted to talk to you about Chase Mallory.”

Delux immediately knew who we were talking about and nodded. I’d only just met her, but already I could tell she was whip-smart, but contemplative too.

“He’s a customer here. Comes in every now and then. Maybe a couple of times a month? He likes me.”

“That’s what we heard,” I said. “Do you remember seeing him a little while back? Came in with a group of guys on a Friday night?”

“The Boys?” Delux shook her head at the memory. “Oh yeah, I remember. They brought out the worst in him. They weren’t shy with the cash though.”

“Did you see any of them the next night? We’ve heard conflicting stories and I think you can set us straight.”

“Sure. Not Chase though. The guys, they hired me and five of my friends to come dance in their room for them. They said it was for Chase, for his bachelor party, but he never showed. They were laughing about it, saying he was down in the bar with his uncle-in-law and some, uh, ‘loser’—their words, not mine—someone they knew from when they were in college? It was a bit weird if you ask me. I said they should go down to the bar to check on him, but they said he was a big boy and he could look after himself.”

“You didn’t see him that night?”

“Nope.” Delux leaned back in her chair, looking at us thoughtfully. “But you came to ask me about him. Did someone say I was with him? Because all those guys will tell you that me and my friends were in that room dancing until one.”

“You left at one?”

“Yep. Four-hour booking. Then I came here for another four hours.”

“You’re a hard worker,” Rosie said admiringly.

“Ain’t gonna retire by forty if I’m not.”

“Retire by forty?” I said.

Delux nodded. “That’s the plan. My portfolio’s been doing real well these last couple of years. Might retire by thirty-nine if this keeps up.”

“Congrats,” I said. “Back to Chase. On that Saturday night, he got very drunk. At least one of his so-called friends was trying to kill him with alcohol. Gave him shot after shot until he was a complete mess.”

“Some friend.”

“Yeah. Anyway, about nine o’clock that night, he got in a taxi to come here, to see you.”

“But I was upstairs.”

“Yep. The guy he was with at that point, one of his coworkers, says he had no idea you were up in the room—he wasn’t invited—and he thinks Chase was so drunk he forgot you were there. So Chase was coming here to see you.”

“I’d say that’s sweet, but I really, really, wouldn’t have wanted to see him if he’d had as much to drink as you say.”

“Do you think it’s plausible?”

Delux rocked her head from side to side. “I’d go with a ‘yes’? It messes with your memory, you know? And this is the only place he’s seen me before. If he wanted to see me, and he forgot I was up in his room…” She shrugged. “This is where he’d come. What time did he get here?”

“He didn’t,” I said.

“Ah.” Delux drummed some well-manicured nails on the table. “Might be that the guy who says Chase came here is lying, then.”

“Yeah. That’s what we’re thinking.”

“Or maybe he changed his mind. Went to see another girl?”

I lifted my eyebrows. “Yeah? Did he tell you about some other dancers he was fond of?”

“No, but, a couple of weeks ago he came in here with one. Real young, college-aged blondie. They sat right at the front. She slipped me a few bucks.”

“And she was a dancer, you say?”

Delux shrugged. “I mean, I figured she was? This kind of place isn’t where you take a girl on a date, not unless she’s in the industry. And he was getting married soon, right? So I figure if he’s seeing anyone, it’s probably someone from a place like this. You should find out what other clubs he was a regular at, see if it’s one of their girls.”

“You didn’t catch her name…?”

Delux laughed. “No, afraid not.”

“While you were talking to his friends, did any of them say anything about Chase that, in retrospect, was worrying?”

“They joked around a lot, and some of it was a bit mean. But that’s how guys like them talk. I didn’t get any major hostility vibes. If they were good people they would have gone down to get him, or looked for him, so they certainly ain’t winning any Person of the Year award. But I didn’t sense anything real bad coming from any of them.”

“Thanks. You’ve been really helpful, we appreciate it.”

“Helpful enough to earn myself a tip?” she asked, eyebrows raised, a smile almost escaping.

I slipped her a twenty.

“Good luck with the retirement plan,” Rosie told her as we left.

It was disconcerting coming from the darkened indoor club out into the brilliant sunlight, and we were both blinking and shading our eyes with our hands while we planned our next moves.

“I don’t think Brandon was telling us the truth,” Rosie said. “If he put him in a taxi to come here, why didn’t he make it inside? It doesn’t make sense. I don’t believe him.”

“Me neither.” It was time I gave Rosie another test, as part of her ongoing training program: “What do you think we should do about it?”

Rosie rubbed her eyes while she thought. Then, she grinned.

“I’ve got an idea…”

Of course she did.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

T

wenty minutes later we were sitting in a booth in a cafe, side-by-side, looking at the screen of Rosie’s phone.

“Genius!” I congratulated her.

Rosie blew on her nails and rubbed them on her blouse. “I have my moments.”

When we first looked into Brandon, we had followed him and Chase as far as we could on the Tremonte’s security system, but that trail had ended at the boundary of the Tremonte’s property. But that didn’t mean it was the end of camera footage of them. Like everywhere these days, the city was filled with cameras. Most of them were owned by private businesses like the Tremonte to cover their property, but there were others, too: cameras operated by public services and institutions, and others still owned by individuals.

What Rosie had dug up was a real blast from the past: A live webcam. I remembered looking at them back in high school, looking at video feeds from all over the world, snatching glimpses of life in far-flung locations. It was neat, for a hot minute, then we’d forgotten all about them.

But they were still running all over the place, including on the Las Vegas Strip. It just took a quick Internet search to find a list of Las Vegas webcams, and the Strip had the largest selection of them in the city. And it just so happened that one of those webcams—this one owned and operated by the city’s tourist board—was located right outside the Tremonte.

Rosie had the feed open on her phone, and was trying to scrub back to the night in question. The footage went back several years, and it was tricky to get it to precisely the right moment. But my little genius of an assistant managed to do it.

“There they are!” I sounded as excited as Angel when she was spotting Waldo in one of her books—or Chase on a security feed.

On the screen, Chase, with his arm wrapped around Brandon’s shoulder, was stumbling out onto the sidewalk. Brandon was standing upright, alert, head-turning and surveying the scene. They turned their backs to the camera, and started walking down the Strip in the direction of the next resort, away from us.

They got smaller and smaller, disappearing as other people blocked the field of view, reappearing as even smaller and grainier specks until they had almost disappeared.

“They stopped,” Rosie said. Then, “That’s a taxi stand!”

Sure enough, we could just about make out the couple of pixely blobs that were Brandon and Chase at a taxi stand outside the next resort down from the Tremonte.

“There, he’s putting him in a taxi,” Rosie said. “His story is checking out.”

“Yeah…”

It checked out perfectly.

Until it didn’t.

After bundling Chase into the taxi, instead of closing the door and sending him on his way, Brandon paused, looked around, and then climbed in after him. The door closed then, and the car pulled out onto the street and quickly zoomed back toward us.

As the taxi flashed by the webcam and disappeared, Rosie and I looked at each other.

Brandon had got in the car with Chase.

And they hadn’t gone to Dancing Gems.

A

n hour later we were outside the offices of a taxi cab company. The company’s livery had been emblazoned on the side and although the webcam footage was too low quality to read the name, a quick internet search had allowed us to figure out which company it was based on the shape of the lettering and the palm tree logo. It was a company called Las Vegas Mirage Taxis, and they operated around a dozen cars in the city.

With the company identified, we could get to work tracking down the driver. We had another clue to go on: There had been a large, purple ornament or charm hanging from the rearview mirror, bouncing around in the footage we’d seen.

Easy peasy.

This wasn’t the kind of inquiry that tended to work well on the phone, so we hopped back in the car and twenty minutes later Rosie and I pulled up to the taxi company’s dusty lot, a few miles out from the Strip.

Inside the office a woman who looked like she really, really, wanted to be smoking a cigarette was sitting behind a desk, an open pack of smokes in front of her, one jutting out, ready to be snatched the moment she got a chance. She had red hair in tight curls and a stained gray cardigan draped on her shoulders over a whiteish blouse. Lying on the desk within easy reach was a romance novel, open, interior pressed down into the desk, ready to be snatched up and dived into at a moment’s notice.

The lady was chewing on a pen, and blue ink had leaked, staining the corner of her mouth.

“Uh, hi, your pen’s leaking,” I said to her.

She snatched it out of her mouth and glared at it, using her other hand to snag a tissue from a box on the desk. She dabbed at her mouth and examined the blue stain with suspicion when she removed it.

“Darn it. I hate it when that happens. Don’t you hate it?”

“So annoying,” I agreed. I don’t think it had happened to me since high school, but I’d use any avenue I could to build a rapport with someone I wanted help from.

I explained that we were investigating the disappearance of a groom, and that the bride-to-be was distraught at not being able to find him. Based on the novel in front of her, I figured the romance aspect of our case was something that might tug on her heartstrings.

“The groom’s missing?” She wrinkled her nose. “You sure he didn’t do a runner?”

“We don’t think so,” I said. “He was very much looking forward to marrying the love of his life.”

“It was an office romance,” Rosie added. “Almost like a fairytale.”

“Aww. And now he’s gone missing? And she’s trying to find him?”

“That’s the size of it,” I said.

“Well we’ve got to get her a happy ending, don’t we?” she said. “What can I do to help?”

Rosie showed the lady a couple of photos of Chase taken from Sabertooth’s website. The first was a handsome profile photo, professionally taken, and it had been so generously taken he could almost pass for a romantic hero. Knowing that romance readers really, really, hate cheating, we made sure not to mention any of the less noble aspects of Chase’s character.

If we told her about Delux and the other mystery dancer I had a feeling our cab operator would be hoping he’d stay missing. No, the image we presented was of the most handsome and charming groom in the city.

“And,” Rosie said, “he was last seen getting into this taxi, operated by one of your drivers.”

We showed her a short clip of the car driving toward us and pointed out the dangling purple ornament.

“That’s Jim’s car,” she said. “Hold on, let me pull up the log.”

We waited patiently, excited smiles just about under control, while she checked their records.

“Yeah, he drove ’em to 18b.”

“The arts district?” I said with a frown. “It was night. Most everything’s closed there at that time.”

She clicked around on her computer for a moment. “Jim’s driving right now. He just had a drop off. He’s not far away. Want me to radio him? See if he’ll talk to you?”

“That would be perfect.”

A

nother half hour later, after some negotiating—Jim was less of a die-hard romantic than the operator—we met the driver in an independent burger restaurant near the taxi office. He’d talk to us in exchange for a double bacon cheeseburger and fries, he said. We joined him after he assured us it was really, really good.

Jim was a jolly-looking man in his thirties, hair thinning, slightly plump, a smile not far from his lips. The smile didn’t quite reach his eyes which had a cunning edge to them that had been reflected in his negotiating of a meal in exchange for information.

Jim kept rubbing his hands and licking his lips while he waited for his order to be prepared. Once the menus were put away, he was ready to talk.

“Yeah, yeah, I remember that job. One of those guys was a mess, the other was okay. I almost told ’em to take a hike. Passengers who are too drunk are always a risk, you know? But let’s not talk about that, we’re about to eat. It was a risk, but the one who wasn’t drunk, he said he’d take full responsibility and he waved a fifty at me so I agreed to take them.”

“How was the vibe?” Rosie asked.

“Not good,” he replied. “The drunk guy, he was rambling all over the place, but when the sober one replied, it was always real cold-like, with an edge to it. They weren’t best friends, I’ll tell you that for free.” He paused, shook his head quickly. “I mean, not free. You already paid for it, with the burger and all.”

“Was any of the conversation lucid?” I asked. “Can you remember anything that was said during the journey?”

“It was all over the shop. One minute it was about a wedding, then they were talking about some old Clint Eastwood movie, then they were talking about some dancing girl. Wasn’t making much sense though, so I kind of tuned them out.”

“They mentioned a dancing girl,” I repeated. “But they didn’t ask you to take them to a club where they could see one? Didn’t change their destination during the ride or anything.”

“Nope. They got in, and then the sober one was quiet for a moment when I asked him where they wanted to go. It was almost like he was thinking about it, y’know? Which is weird, because if you go to a taxi stand, and then you get in a taxi, usually you know where you want to go before you get in, don’t you? But it took them a moment to figure it out. Then the not-drunk one told me to go to Charleston Boulevard, said he’d direct me from there. The drunk one, he was all ‘Why are we going there?’ but then he got distracted and rambled off about something else. They were weird, man.”

“Did anything else happen that stands out?” I asked.

“Lemme see. Nothing too special. We drove to Charleston, then the sober guy, he pointed me down a side road, got me to drop them off by a gallery. I don’t remember what it was called, but it was closed anyway, and they weren’t intending to go inside. The guy said where they were going was just nearby. I didn’t like it, truth be told, there was something off about the pair of them. If that drunk guy had been a lady I don’t think I’d have felt right letting her go off with him. Not with that vibe.”

“But because he was a man you didn’t do anything about it?” Rosie said.

“Uh, yeah. Sorry. Uh, if anything happened to either of them I’m sorry. But I got a call, another job, so I dropped them off and I was on my way. Didn’t feel great about it, but then, honestly, I forgot about it. We meet all kinds of people in this job, it’s the most interesting job in the world, y’know?”

“It sounds fascinating.”

“Anyway, now I heard you wanted to know about that ride, I was happy to help.”

“In return for lunch,” I pointed out.

“Man’s gotta eat! And if I get to do a good deed in return for my supper, I’m not gonna say no.”

“Very wise,” Rosie said to him. “Did you see what way they went after you dropped them off?”

“Naw.” His eyes went wide and he sat up straight. “Hey, hey, hey! There it is! Lunch is up, up up!”

A server carried our burgers over on a large tray and sat them down. Jim was rubbing his hands in anticipation while he waited for the server to get out of his way. The second the third plate had been set down and we’d told him we didn’t need anything else from him, Jim fell on his burger like he was starving.

“Mmm! Mmm! Mmm!” Jim said behind a mouthful of food.

Rosie and I ate with slightly less enthusiasm, but that wasn’t because we weren’t enjoying it. The food was excellent, we just weren’t quite as vocal as our witness.

“That’s some good eating, some real good eating,” Jim said when he was done. “Oh man, I love this place, I just love it. Do you love it?”

“Mmhmm,” I confirmed, nodding, my mouth still full.

I did love it.

But not as much as I loved the information he’d given us.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

I

found a spot to park near Charleston Boulevard and then we walked over to where the taxi driver dropped off Brandon and Chase. It was a characterful side road with several smaller galleries with cheery signs among the brightly colored buildings, most of which had been deliberately decorated with graffiti art.

Rosie was staring up at the lamp posts.

“I don’t think there are any webcams on this street,” she said.

“Shame. Okay, let’s see if we can figure out where they might have gone.”

Small groups of tourists slowly strolled up and down, taking photos of themselves and the more interesting pieces of street art, but rarely venturing into the galleries themselves. We checked the opening times of businesses as we passed, but there wasn’t much that would have been open at that time on a Saturday night.

At the end of the street was a convenience store. I pulled Rosie towards it.

“It’s open twenty-four hours,” I said.

“You think Brandon brought Chase all the way here to visit a convenience store?” Rosie asked, brow furrowed.

“No. But it’s our best chance for a witness.”

The shop was a franchise and the guy running it, Sam, was only too happy to talk.

“You’re locals?” he said, eyes gleaming after I told him we were PIs. “Well welcome to my store, neighbors!”

“Yep, we’re locals,” I said. “And your store looks lovely.”

It was a convenience store. But, the floors were shiny and clean, the shelves were fully-stocked and neatly arranged, and it smelled good thanks to the fresh pastry display. Yep, as convenience stores go, it was a good one.

“Thanks! It’s good to get some locals in here, you know? The tourists are great, they’re my bread and butter, but I was reading these business books, and they say that regular clients are what you want. They say it’s easier to sell to someone you’ve sold to before than to find yourself new customers. I’ve been worrying night and day since I read that, since most of my customers are tourists. They’re not going to come back here from Tucson or Des Moines or LA no matter how nice I keep my shop. Say, you didn’t come here to talk business, did you?”

“We did,” I said, “us entrepreneurs are always talking business, aren’t we?” He nodded agreement that we were. “But we were hoping to maybe talk a little about our business as well.”

“Though yours is fascinating,” Rosie said. “I always wanted to own a convenience store.”

I had no idea if Rosie was acting or meant it.

“Well if you ever want to talk about it, you just come right on back here.” Rosie enthusiastically agreed that she would. Sam continued, “I don’t know much about your detective work. You’re working on a case? And it’s something to do with my shop?”

He looked around it as if there might be a clue hidden somewhere in his store. I was hoping there actually was.

“Yep,” I said. “I really hope you can help. Do you know who was working here a couple of Saturdays ago? Around midnight?”

“Let me see. There’s four of us that run this place, me, my wife, my brother-in-law, and his son. And we have a couple of part-timers too, but one of us four is always here. But at that time of night, it’d just be one of us.”

Sam pulled out a clipboard from behind the counter and examined it. There was a staff rota on there, and he ran his finger down it as he checked.

“Well look at that! It was me! I best get my thinking cap on if you’re going to ask me about that night.” Sam mimed picking up a hat off the counter and putting it on his head. “I’ll do my best, ma’ams. Fire away.”

I pointed to the small camera above the counter. “You’ve got a security system. How long do you keep your videos?”

“I think the brochure said they’re kept in the—” Sam pointed up toward the ceiling, “—cloud for a year. And I don’t even have to change the tapes. It all goes over the Internet, up there.” Sam pointed up again. “And I guess somehow it comes back down again when you want to look at it. Fortunately, we’ve not had to do that yet.”

“That’s great,” I said. “Sounds like a fantastic system.” I had to restrain myself from rubbing my hands together like Jim had before he got his hands on his burger.

“So, yeah, that Saturday night. I don’t suppose you’re asking about that fella that was in a bad state, are you? That’s the one that sticks out, now I think about it. That was about one in the morning.”

“A bad state?” Rosie said. “You mean he was very drunk?”

“No,” Sam shook his head, then reconsidered. “Or perhaps he was a bit. No, I mean on account of the broken nose and I guess he had some bruised ribs.”

“A broken nose and bruised ribs?”

“I ain’t certain about the ribs. But believe it or not, thirty years back, I used to play football, and I got my ribs bruised real bad once. The way that fella was moving, he looked like he’d taken a linebacker to the chest.” Sam leaned forward, angled one shoulder toward us. “Pow!” He straightened up and shook his head. “And like I said, his nose was broke, too. Fresh, that day, that evening, I’d say.”

“And this was at one in the morning?”

“That’s right. I remember, he came in, and I checked the time, and I said to myself, ‘it’s only one and you’ve got a fella like that come in. It’s gonna be one of them nights!’ I started at eleven, y’see, so it was only a couple hours into the shift. I love those overnight ones, I like the peace. Though I wish they were busier, too, for the revenue. But the peace is nice.”

I was really warming to Sam. If everyone we met on a case was like him, our cases would be smooth sailing from the moment we started until completion. In fact, we were having just about the best run of helpful witnesses and informants I could remember having. Sam was delightful, Jim had been helpful too once he knew there was a burger in it for him, Delux and her boss had been way nicer than I’d had any hope of expecting, and of course, the Tremonte had been more than helpful. This was our lucky case.

“And this man came in alone?” I asked.

“Yep.”

“Is this him?” Rosie asked, showing a picture of Chase on her phone. This was not his ‘romantic lead’ image from the company website, but a candid one taken on a night out that she’d pulled from social media. A more realistic version of what he might have looked like that evening. Though without the injuries he’d apparently sustained.

“Oh, yeah, yep, that’s him, that’s the fella. He did not look as slick as in that picture though, no sir. When I saw him he looked like he’d been hitting the sauce a bit, a real tired look to him, and he smelled like whiskey and whatnot.”

“Stumbling drunk?” Rosie asked.

Sam shook his head. “Naw, he could walk—well, shuffle—straight and he knew where he was. I’d say he’d been drinking earlier in the evening and sobered up a bit.”

“Maybe the broken nose sobered him up,” Rosie said.

Sam chuckled. “Haw, yeah, I think that’d do the trick.”

“Did you speak to him? Did he give any indication as to how he sustained his injuries?”

“Yes, and no, to answer both your questions. When he came in, he was in a bit of a state, like I said. He’d taken off his button-up shirt, and he was just wearing this white undershirt, a t-shirt. But the button-up, he was holding it to his face, it was all bloody. Made me sad, to see a nice shirt like that ruined. There was no way he was getting all that blood out, no sir. So, when he came in looking like that, I tried to help, I asked if there was anything I could do for him, if he needed me to call the police, or an ambulance or a taxi or what have you.”

“And what did he say to that?”

An arm shoved between Rosie and me, and a big bag of chips and a bottle of soda were slapped onto the counter.

“Excuse me!”

Rosie and I stepped back and I gave the woman a questioning look, surprised at the aggressive rudeness.

“You’ve been gossiping away, not letting anyone get served! I’ve got places to be, bless your heart.”

“Sorry ma’am, I didn’t see you there,” said Sam. “I was assisting these detectives. Let me ring that up for you, it won’t take two ticks.”

“Hurry up with it. I’ve got a show to get to.” The woman was waving a credit card in the air as she spoke, and shoved it over the second her items were rung up. “Must be nice having a job where you just stand around and chat all day. Some of us have to work for a living, you know. Y’know what I do? Insurance. That’s real work. Can I get a bag? Then I come here for my vacation and people mess me around, making me wait! This city is the most overrated place in the country. I won’t be back.”

“Good,” I snapped at her.

“Good? Good? You should be begging people like me to be here!”

Rosie nudged me. “Can I shoot her, boss?”

The woman’s eyes went wide and she turned and scurried for the door.

“You’re all maniacs!”

When the woman was gone, we turned back to Sam who was looking a little flustered now.

“I can see why you’d prefer some nice regulars over tourists like her,” I said.

“Most of ’em aren’t so aggressive and I like ’em just fine,” Sam said, “it’s just my business books tell me that regulars are what you need to stay in business.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it then,” I said. “I work in a casino sometimes, and they rely on the tourists and do just fine. Your business books probably aren’t talking about Las Vegas.”

“Ma’am, I think you might be onto something. I’m going to keep that in mind. So, this fella with the bloody nose. I asked him if he wanted me to call him a taxi.” Sam reached behind the counter and pulled out a business card. It was for Las Vegas Mirage taxis.”

“And what did he say?”

“Nothin’,” he just held out his phone, and he waved it at me, like this.” Sam used his own phone to make the gesture. “So I guess he already called a ride. I asked if he wanted me to call anyone else—the police or what have you—but he said nope, he was just dandy. He got himself a hot coffee and a bottle of water and then he left.”

“Did you see him get into a taxi then?”

“Nope, I was dealing with another customer when he left.” Sam gestured above him to the camera. “There’s one of these doohickeys outside as well, if you want to try and take a look at the footage? Maybe you can see him getting in his cab from that one.”

“That would be incredible.” I really did need to thank my lucky stars.

“I hope y’all are better at working the technology than me though, I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“We’ll figure it out!” I assured him.

A few minutes later Rosie and I were crammed into a tiny back office in front of a modern computer with a large screen. Sam logged into the security software, and then I let Rosie take the reins, taking us back in time to that fateful Saturday night.

In a few short minutes Rosie got us to the right not, and then things played out just as Sam told us. Chase came into the store looking like he’d just been in a boxing match with someone who really knew what they were doing. He was half-stumbling, but it looked more like it was due to his injuries than because he was drunk. He was stumbling forward instead of side-to-side.

“Man, what happened to him?” Rosie said as we watched the interaction between the beat-up customer and the friendly shopkeeper.

“What do you think happened to him, Rosie?”

“I figure there’s two possibilities. He and Brandon went different ways, and then Chase got mugged and beat up. But I don’t think that’s very likely because he’s got his phone and wallet. It would have to be just a random beating without even a theft to accompany it.”

“So.”

“So, I think what happened is Brandon beat him up. He got the taxi to the arts district because he knew it would be quiet at night. Took Chase down an alley and really went to town on him. Then he left.”

“That does look to be where the clues are pointing,” I agreed. “But why would Brandon want to do something like that? It can’t be because of something Chase said that night, no way. It would have to be due to a deep-seated grudge he held against him.”

“Maybe he figured Chase was so drunk he wasn’t going to remember,” Rosie said. “Brandon hates Chase for some reason, and he gets an opportunity to beat on him so he makes the most of it. Beats the hay out of him then leaves him stumbling around out here.”

“If he did, it must have been something related to work. We heard Chase got a promotion due to being Lia’s fiancé. Perhaps Brandon felt that was unfair and took out his frustrations on Chase.”

“Seeing someone get promoted because of who they’re dating would be really frustrating,” Rosie said. “That makes sense. It’s crazy behavior, attacking someone because of it, but it’s got a logic to it.” On the screen, Chase was heading for the shop door. “Okay, and we’ll switch to the outside camera…”

Rosie clicked, and we got a top-down view of Chase coming out onto the street. He had his phone in one hand, and was looking down the road expectantly.

“Waiting for his ride…”

Then the car pulled up.

“That’s not a taxi,” I said.

“Doesn’t look much like a rideshare car, either,” Rosie said. “Too old.”

On the screen a dented Nissan from the turn of the millennium had shuddered to a halt. Chase paused, as if hesitating. Then he yanked open the door, and climbed inside. A moment later, the car whisked him away.

Rosie reversed the video, and we watched it again slowly. We noted down the license plate number, and watched Chase’s body language as he got into the vehicle.

“He doesn’t look too happy about getting into that car,” Rosie said.

“But, he did get in,” I said.

“Can we get the plate run?” Rosie asked.

“Hmm. I guess we can ask Emily.” It was of course completely illegal for her to do that for me, so it was a big favor to ask my friend. “But let’s keep investigating for a day or two first, see if we can get what we need without having to call in favors.”

Rosie took some photos of the screen showing Chase in his beat-up state, and of the car that he had reluctantly climbed into.

We were left with three questions. What had happened between Jim dropping off Brandon and Chase? Whose car had Chase gotten into? Where did Chase go?

“Brandon’s got some serious explaining to do,” Rosie said as she stood up.

“Let’s go give him a squeeze.”

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

A

t Brandon’s house, his wife Toni answered the door with a look of grim satisfaction on her face. We hadn’t called ahead, but it appeared as if she were expecting us .

“I figured you’d be back,” she said, stepping back from the doorway “come in, come in.”

She led us into the kitchen and we sat at a round table with mugs of coffee. She had something she wanted to tell us and I let her do it in her own time. There was no need for any pushiness or to give her a metaphorical squeeze, so we waited patiently until she was good and ready to spill what it was she wanted to say.

Once the coffee was ready, so was she.

The kitchen table was against the wall, and on the wall edge was a picture frame. Toni had knocked it over, and now it was, very deliberately, lying face down. Things were not going well in this household.

“He won’t be back tonight,” Toni said. “I kicked him out yesterday evening.”

“Oh?”

Toni nodded. “He’s a liar. I can’t trust him. First, he comes home with some woman’s hair on his shirt, smelling of her perfume. And now, I find out that he lied about that night he was at the bachelor party!”

I tried not to get too excited.

“Oh?” I said again, leaning forward a little more, my hands gripped more tightly around my coffee mug. “What did he lie about?”

“He told me he came back around midnight,” Toni said. “But he didn’t! You know what time he got in?”

“Was it very late?” Rosie said.

“I’ll say! It was six in the morning! Six! Six!”

Rosie’s eyebrows came together in thought. “You watched your doorbell camera footage, right?”

Toni broke into a smile, and nodded quickly at Rosie. “You noticed that, huh? Yep. Exactly. After you came here to speak to him, I started stewing. There’s no smoke without fire, right? You wouldn’t have been here if Brandon wasn’t mixed up in something or other. Last night, I remembered the doorbell. I went back through the footage and guess what I saw?”

“You just said he came in around six in the morning,” I said. “Did you see something else that was interesting?”

“Did I ever. You wanna see?”

Yes, yes we did want to see.

Toni pulled up the app for her high-tech doorbell on her iPad. She had the footage ready to roll already. I figured she’d been watching it on repeat. I wondered what we were going to see. Perhaps Brandon being dropped off by another woman?

But no.

It was weirder than that.

On the screen, we saw Brandon climb out of a car. From the way he got out of the back and said goodbye to the driver, I figured it was a rideshare of some kind.

“That an Uber?” Rosie asked, on the same page as me.

“Yes,” Toni said. “I checked our bank account after I first watched this, and that’s exactly what it is.”

Brandon walked up to the front door, but before letting himself in, he stopped and dug something out of his pocket.

“What’s that?” I said, squinting at the screen. The object he was holding was relatively small, rectangular, and a silvery metal.

It became clearer what it was when he began to manipulate the object. “It’s a flask,” Rosie said as Brandon unscrewed the lid.

Then, he held out one palm and poured some of the liquid into it. He then dabbed it on his neck and shirt.

“Wait, what?” I said. “Is that cologne or something?”

“Nope,” Toni said. “That’s his hip flask. He inherited it from his grandfather. He thinks it’s manly to carry around whiskey with him everywhere he goes for some reason. Idiot.”

This was confirmed when Brandon proceeded to lift it to his mouth and take a swig. And then another. Then, he tucked it away, and let himself into the house.

“What do you make of that?” Toni asked. “He’s nuts, right?”

“He’s something,” I said, “but I’m not sure that he’s nuts.”

“He wanted you to think that he was out drinking all night,” Rosie said.

“Which means he wasn’t,” I said.

“Why the heck would he want me to think that?” Toni said. “He knows how much I— Oh. Because he was with someone else. A woman.”

“Or a man,”

“Oh, no, I don’t think so,” Toni said. “Brandon only ever had girlfriends before he met me.” She frowned something fierce. “And after.”

“We didn’t mean in terms of a relationship,” I said. “We’re thinking about his missing buddy.”

“Oh, yes ,of course. I’m so caught up in the fact Brandon has been cheating on me that I forgot that’s not actually why you’re investigating him.”

“You said you kicked him out—did he admit that he was seeing someone else?”

“He didn’t need to!”

“Right. The perfume, the hair, the coming back in the morning. It all points that way. But did he tell you that he was with someone that night? Or did he try to give you a different reason for his coming back so late?”

Toni ran a finger around the rim of her coffee mug while she thought back to her earlier conversation. “I’m not sure. I guess I didn’t give him much of a chance to explain. There’s nothing he can say that would make his behavior okay.”

“He’s been a terrible partner for you recently,” I said. “We’re just trying to figure out if he’s been terrible in any other ways.”

Toni nodded. “You think he might have hurt Chase.”

“We’re pretty sure he did. Hurt him, anyway. But Chase was still alive after. We think Brandon broke Chase’s nose, but after that, they both disappeared. Separately. We’d like to ask Brandon why he hurt Chase, and where he spent the rest of the evening. Do you have any idea who the other woman might be, Toni?”

Her jaw clenched tightly and she shook her head. “Probably someone from his work. Or a client. Or I guess it could be from one of the dating apps? But I don’t think it’s that, I think he would only cheat with someone he met by chance. So he can deny he had any bad intentions. You know, so he can say, ‘I didn’t mean to cheat, but one thing led to another…’”

“This happened before?”

“No. I mean, yes.” Toni quickly lifted her coffee mug and took a couple of sips before she continued. “When we met, I… I was the other woman. He was dating a different girl, but he didn’t tell me that at first. Then we fell in love. I found out that he had been dating someone else only after they’d broken up. She dumped him when she found out about me. Naively, I figured that he only cheated on that girl with me because we were destined for each other. That his old girlfriend was a mistake, he was with the wrong person. That it would be different with me. I should have realized that once a cheater, always a cheater. I just didn’t want to see it.”

“You have no idea where he was that night,” I said “Can you tell us where he is now?”

Toni showed us a message from Brandon with the address of the motel he’d checked in at. He wanted her to come over to talk about things. She hadn’t replied.

“H

e’s a real piece of work, isn’t he?” Rosie said as we headed for the motel. “Him and Chase. They were both cheating on their partners!”

“I know, right?”

I overtook a slow-moving pickup loaded with landscaping equipment. We were nearly there.

“Maybe Chase was kidnapped by the blonde chick that Delux saw him with,” Rosie said. “Maybe that’s whose car it was he got into, and she drove him away and locked him up until he agreed to leave Lia for her!”

“That seems as plausible as anything else right now,” I said, grinning. “What do you think about Brandon’s whiskey-on-the-collar trick?”

“Terrible,” Rosie said. “But I guess a little bit clever. He ‘admits’ to something he knows Toni hates—going out drinking late—to cover up something she hates even more. But he wasn’t making his life easy, was he? Why couldn’t he just be a decent person instead?”

“A lot of people seem to struggle with that, don’t they?”

“Yeah,” Rosie said sadly. “There’s the motel!”

We pulled in and went to the front desk. A round woman with rounder glasses was eating an apple. She gave us a curious look as we crossed the lobby toward her. Our gait and determination told her we weren’t motel guests and she wanted to know who or what exactly we were.

“We’re here to see Brandon Silvio,” I said. “He’s a guest here.”

“Yeah?” She chewed and swallowed a piece of apple. “What room is he in?”

“We’re hoping you could tell us,” I said.

She shook her head. “Nope. Can’t do that. Privacy.”

“Then please give him a call and let him know we’re here, he can come meet us.”

That was acceptable, and so she slowly ran her finger down a guest register book until she got to 108, and then punched the room number into her phone.

“You didn’t see that,” she said, when she saw that I’d seen the room number both in the book, and when she’d pressed the digits on the phone.

“Yep. Didn’t see anything.”

She let the phone ring for nearly a minute before giving up.

“No answer.”

“I guess we’ll just have to come back later then,” I said.

“And we definitely won’t walk over to the room and knock on the door,” Rosie said with an exaggerated wink.

The front desk girl giggled, then took another big bite of her apple as she watched us walk away.

The motel was arranged in a large U-shape with parking in the middle. Brandon’s room was just a few doors down from the reception. We rang the doorbell, then knocked on the door, then rang the bell again. No joy.

Rosie pressed her face up against the window. The curtains were drawn closed, but there was a small sliver between them she could peer through for a glimpse of the room beyond.

“Anything?”

Rosie shook her head sadly and took a step back from the window.

“No. Nothing. There’s a couple of shirts on the bed, a bag on the floor.”

“Maybe he went out for dinner,” I said.

We tried calling him, but it went straight to voicemail. Wherever Brandon was, he didn’t want to be found, at least not by us. For all we knew he could even have been hiding in the room, behind the door or in the bathroom.

“Shall we call it a day?” I asked Rosie. “It feels like we’ve been all over the city twice over and I’ve got a shift at the Treasury in a couple of hours.”

“Okay,” Rosie said. “I’ll keep an eye on Brandon’s social media, and see if he pops up anywhere this evening.”

“Please try and get some rest, Rosie, okay? You can do that in the morning. We’re not going to chase him down tonight.”

“Wanna do a movie marathon after you finish your Treasury shift?”

“No,” I said, laughing. “Absolutely not.”

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

T

he next morning Rosie brought over some pizza for breakfast. She explained that Jan and she had a ‘Spiderman reboots and pizza’ marathon the night before. When I told her that meant she had pizza twice in two days she exclaimed at how awesome that was, and also informed me that Jan had once eaten pizza every day for an entire month. It didn’t surprise me.

After a second slice of pepperoni, and a second cup of coffee, we were ready to get to work.

“Nothing on social media last night,” Rosie said. “If he went out for dinner he didn’t post it on Insta. He’s probably upset about his wife kicking him out.”

“Yeah. Hey, the fact he checked into a motel tells us something. The other woman can’t be that serious, since he didn’t go over to her place.”

“Maybe the other woman has another man.” Rosie frowned in thought. “I mean, maybe Brandon is the other man. So she can’t have him crashing at hers.”

“Oh. Could be. Do cheaters attract cheaters?”

“Of course, boss. Otherwise, they’d be extinct.”

It took me a beat to understand what she meant. “I didn’t mean cheetahs, the animal.”

Rosie burst into giggles. “I know. Just messing.”

“It’s too early for that kind of cleverness, Rosie. Okay. Let’s go by the Sabertooth office instead of trying to call him. Hopefully, Felix will let us have a few minutes of Brandon’s time.”

“He might be out of the office,” Rosie said. “He was last time. Shall I call and check?”

I considered it.

“No. He might be avoiding us. He didn’t reply to my message or return my calls yesterday. We’ll surprise him. And if he isn’t there, we’ll find out where he’s supposed to be today and surprise him there instead.”

“Got it!”

Thirty minutes later we walked into Sabertooth’s office and regretted it almost immediately.

Felix was screaming his head off and I now understood what Brandon meant about being terrified of getting on his bad side.

We hovered by the entrance while Felix’s voice filled the space in front of us. He was telling his staff, in no uncertain terms, that he expected reliability and diligence from them all. That he wasn’t concerned with their health and wellbeing. That if they were to be part of the Sabertooth family, they needed to be dedicated.

Words to that effect, anyway. Felix’s way of putting it had a lot more cursing and vitriol thrown into it. The staff sat at their desks, all pale, some trembling. One lady near the back was dabbing at her eyes with a tissue.

“…AND IF YOU DON’T THINK YOU CAN HACK IT, THE DOOR IS THERE!”

Felix finished his rant with a gesture to where we were standing. It was at this point that he finally noticed us. It didn’t do anything to improve his mood. Our presence didn’t do anything to worsen it, either—that didn’t seem possible.

Felix stared at us hard for several seconds, then turned away and stomped over to his glass-walled office in the corner. After entering, he used all his strength to fling the door closed. Fortunately for all concerned, it had one of those slow-closing hinges, otherwise it would no doubt have shattered into a million pieces.

After entering the office, Felix closed all the blinds. From inside, we heard more shouting and swearing.

The office slowly began to recover from the verbal assault. Staff whispered to each other, and some of the bravest ones recovered and slowly began to move around again. The atmosphere was electric, but not in a good way, it was more like you’d just been strapped into an electric chair and then received a temporary reprieve owing to technical problems.

Rosie and I scanned the office, looking for Brandon. Didn’t find him.

“Lucky him,” Rosie said. “He avoided the rant of the century.”

Lia had a desk just outside Felix’s office, and after ending a conversation and giving a hug to a woman in tears, she walked over toward us.

“Hey,” Lia said. “Fun morning here.”

“Felix has a lot of energy, doesn’t he?” Rosie said.

Lia gave a half-laugh. “Yeah, that’s one way of putting it. Come on. Let’s go outside for a moment. I need some air.”

There were a couple of benches outside, probably installed for smokers some years back, but now largely unused. The sun was hidden behind the building, so the position was shady, and after the intense atmosphere of the office the peace and calm of the outside world was a relief.

I sure was glad I didn’t work in a place like that.

“What’s he so angry about?” I asked Lia once we were sitting.

“Brandon,” she said. “Chase, too. But today, mostly Brandon.”

“He’s not there,” I said.

“Exactly,” Lia confirmed. “That’s the problem. First Chase, now Brandon, too…” She looked at us hopefully. “Have you found anything?”

“A lot of things,” I said. “We came here looking for Brandon this morning, but we need to talk to you as well about some of the things we’ve found.”

“Okay. I guess you don’t know where Chase is yet.” It wasn’t really a question, the way she said it. More a resigned statement of fact.

“No, not yet, but we’ve been creating a timeline of his evening on that Saturday night. We wondered if you might be able to shed some light on some of it. But before we get to that, what’s up with Brandon?”

Lia shrugged. “Don’t know. He didn’t come in yesterday, and he wouldn’t answer his phone. Felix is furious.”

“Huh. His wife kicked him out the evening before. Maybe he’s taking an impromptu vacation.”

Lia looked at me dubiously. “That seems unlikely. An impromptu vacation would not be good for his career, to put it mildly. What’d he get kicked out for? Cheating?”

“Yep.”

“Figures.”

“Yeah? Do you know who the lady is?”

“Nope, and I don’t want to. I’ve just seen him flirting with the girls in the office. He takes it further than someone who’s married should, if you catch my drift. Someone must have taken the bait.”

Unfortunately, we were going to have to get onto the topic of Chase cheating, too, before too long. But before that, I wanted to figure out what was up between Brandon and her fiancé.

“So what’s this about Chase’s timeline? Do you know where he went after the hotel bar?”

“We’ve figured out his next stop at least,” I said. “We’ll get to it in a moment. But first, did he have some kind of beef with Brandon?”

“No.” She shook her head confidently. “They’re friends.”

“Is it possible they only pretend to be friendly?” Rosie asked. “That Brandon might actually be resentful toward Chase?”

“Because Chase got promoted? And Brandon didn’t?”

Rosie shrugged. “That, or any other reason you might know of.”

“I guess? Chase got the leadership position that Brandon wanted, but I don’t think he was that mad over it. I heard Brandon say something like his time would come, he was just going to keep plugging away and he’d make it to the top. I don’t think he was super mad about it. It was a hurdle, not a disaster. Why?”

“We think they might have had a pretty big altercation that evening.”

“Oh.” Lia held her chin in her hands and thought about it. “Sometimes when people drink, they get a bit carried away. Say things they regret, you know? I’m guessing they drank a lot?”

“Yeah, about that,” I said. “Let’s go back a little earlier in the evening. First, do you know Tyler? Tyler Reed?”

“I’ve heard of him, he’s friends with Chase on Facebook. I haven’t met him though. They knew each other in college.”

“Okay. Tell us what you think about this: Tyler really, really didn’t like Chase. He was mad because of something that happened years ago.”

“Really? What happened years ago?”

“Tyler was dating a girl, and Chase kind of… stole her from him.”

“Oh.” Lia laughed softly. “Surely that was the girl’s decision? I don’t know much about Chase’s previous girlfriends. I don’t want to, you know? I know he dated before me, of course, but I don’t know the details and I don’t want to know them.”

“Understandable,” I said. For a moment I wondered who Stone had dated in the past before he met me. Then I pushed that thought right to the very back corner of my mind and locked it away. Like Lia, I was not interested. Not at all. “Of course it was the girl’s decision, but Tyler felt upset about it, and he seemingly never got over it.”

“And, what, he wanted revenge? All these years later? Did he do something to Chase?”

“Kind of. He bought him drinks. A lot of drinks.”

Lia tilted her head quizzically.

“A lot,” Rosie said again.

“Tried to get him drunk?”

“And then some,” I said. “He tried to kill him with alcohol.”

Lia suddenly laughed, and then slapped a hand over her mouth, surprised at her own reaction.

“This guy tried to kill Chase by buying him too many drinks? That’s… that’s something, isn’t it? What happened?”

“He bought Chase lots of drinks, as we said. He was running out of money though, and he left when Brandon arrived and took over.”

“Took over? In what, buying Chase drinks?”

“Yes. Tyler seemed to think that Brandon wanted to do the same thing: Kill Chase with alcohol.”

Lia shook her head. “I don’t think I really understand.”

“I know, it’s odd,” I said. “But we saw the security footage. Chase drank more than a dozen shots in little more than an hour, thanks to those two guys. When we confronted him, Tyler claimed he was trying to kill Chase with alcohol. Brandon however said that was completely wrong, that Tyler had misunderstood his intentions, and they were just celebrating in the way that men sometimes do during a bachelor party.”

“That sounds more likely to me. What do you guys think?” Lia asked. “Brandon and Chase both like their booze, and this Tyler guy sounds weird.”

“From what we saw, all we can say is that Chase drank a lot, and Tyler and Brandon didn’t.”

“Okay. And you said they went somewhere after?”

“Tyler had left by then, he ran out of money to buy more drinks. Brandon and Chase got in a taxi. But this is where things get a bit weird. We need to say a few things that could be a little upsetting, Lia, about where Chase was going.”

She laughed. “It was a bachelor party. Trust me, I’m not going to be too shocked or dismayed, whatever they were up to. Boys will be boys, y’know?”

“Okay. Brandon told us that Chase wanted to go to a place called Dancing Gems.”

“Ah.” Lia nodded. “Yeah, that’s the kind of place guys go on a bachelor party, isn’t it?”

“Some do,” I said. “Brandon said that Chase wanted to see one dancer in particular, someone called Delux Diamond.”

Lia shrugged. “Cool name.”

“But the thing is, his friends, the Boys, they had actually already arranged for Delux and her friends to perform in their hotel room. They were upstairs already.”

“Then why would they go in a taxi to Dancing Gems?” Lia wrinkled her nose. “Oh. Because he was so drunk he forgot?”

“That’s what Brandon claimed,” I said to her.

“Make sense,” Lia said. She was a lot less upset by the situation than I’d expected. I didn’t think Toni would have reacted in the same way, that’s for sure.

“Here’s the thing,” Rosie said, “first, Brandon told us he put Chase in a taxi and sent him on his way. But he didn’t. Brandon went with him.”

“He was probably worried you’d tell Toni. She’s a bit uptight about things like that. She thinks relationships should be perfect, and that partners should be flawless. I’m a bit more of a realist.”

“Okay, but second,” I said, “they didn’t go there. They went to the arts district instead.”

Lia went quiet and she looked genuinely confused now. “34B? At night? During a bachelor party? Why the heck would they do that?”

“You don’t have any idea?” I asked her.

“No. This is getting weird now.”

“Agreed. Now, best we can tell, Brandon then proceeded to attack Chase. Broke his nose, bruised his ribs, maybe cracked them.”

“What? Why would he do that?”

“We’d really like to know the answer to that,” I said.

“We called all the hospitals,” Lia said. “Chase isn’t in any of them.”

“No, he didn’t go to the hospital. We don’t know where Brandon went at that point. But we saw Chase on some security footage getting into a car.”

“An Uber?”

“We don’t think so. The car looked too old and beat up.”

“Then whose car was it?” Lia asked.

“We don’t know,” I said. “Lia, do you know if Chase was having an affair?”

She quickly shook her head. “No, he wouldn’t do that. Go watch some girls dancing, sure. But he wouldn’t cheat, no way. Why do you think that? Did someone say something?”

“Yes. We went to Dancing Gems, that’s how we found out they never made it there. Delux Diamond told us she’d seen Chase in there before. But he’d come in with a blonde girl.”

“A blonde girl?” Lia twirled a strand of hair around her finger. Her hair was light brown and I didn’t think she went to strip clubs with Chase. “Who?”

“We don’t know, not yet. But we’re wondering whether it was her whose car he got into that evening. And if so, who she is.”

Lia was quiet for a while. She kept twirling hair around her finger. “You think it’s true?” she said finally. “That he was having an affair? With this blonde?”

“We don’t know. But that’s what the dancer thought, that’s the impression she got. She thinks the girl was a dancer from another club. Does Chase often go out late?”

“Sometimes he has drinks with clients for business,” she said. “And they end up staying out late. That’s what he told me.”

We sat and quietly contemplated that for a moment. Lia could make up her own mind about what she thought was happening.

“What happens next?” she asked finally.

“We’re going to continue investigating. Do you have access to Chase’s online bank accounts?”

“To check whether he used his cards?” Lia shook her head. “No. I don’t know his login details. Sorry.”

Chase liked to keep his secrets it seemed.

“Thanks Lia. We’ll keep you informed.”

“Wait…”

“What’s up?”

Lia nodded toward the interior of the building.

“What do you think about my uncle?”

“He seems like someone from an eighties business movie,” Rosie said.

Lia slowly nodded. “Yeah he is a bit like that.”

“Do you have concerns about him?” I asked.

“No…” Lia was quite a moment. “You saw how he has a temper though, right?”

“Right.”

“You don’t think he could have had something to do with Chase’s disappearance, do you?”

“He was the one who hired us. Him and you. It would be an odd thing to do if he did.”

“Right. Yeah. Of course.” She glanced back toward the building again. “It was my idea, to hire investigators. He just went along with it.”

“We’re following the facts, following the clues. So far, they don’t point toward him. And what motivation would he have?”

“I don’t know. But he can get very, very angry. If Chase upset him, then maybe…” Lia shook her head. “Sorry, I’m rambling. It was just a thought.”

“Thanks, Lia. If you think of anything else, let us know, would you?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Okay, wish us luck. We’re going to go and talk to him.”

Lia nodded, then a little smile crept onto her lips. “I think I’ll stay outside until you’re done.”

“Think we’re going to make him mad again?” I asked with a smile.

“We’ll try not to.”

Rosie and I headed back into the saber tooth tiger’s den.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

F

elix was stewing and glowering behind his desk.

“Can’t get the people these days. Young people, young guys, they don’t have the drive that people had when I was coming up. In my day, we’d work two, three days straight, then go out drinking, then straight back into the office, and we were glad for the opportunity.”

I kept my eye roll internal. If there was any truth to that, then there must have been copious amounts of drugs involved. Hardly a role model. Rosie was more direct:

“They’re just not as inspired these days,” my assistant said sympathetically.

Felix bobbed his head in agreement with Rosie, completely missing her subtle jibe. As the leader, it was his job to provide the inspiration. I loved it when she got away with little jabs like that. But only when they went unnoticed. Fortunately, she was good at toeing the line by keeping them so subtle they were rarely picked up on.

“When I was young we all wanted to be top dog, top of the pile, king of the heap. We’d work till our fingers bled. These days they’re all about ‘balance’ and avoiding a ‘hostile work environment’ and all the rest of that nonsense. When I was a kid, we called people like that hippies, and they kept their noses away from the grind, away from the world of real work. Now they’re all hippies!”

Not a single person in the Sabertooth office had given me anything like hippie vibes.

“That’s too bad,” Rosie said. She was probably the closest thing to a hippie in the entire building right now.

“You know my company lawyer said I had to watch out in case I got sued. Sued! By one of my employees! That takes the cake, doesn’t it? Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. If one of those schmucks tried to sue me, I’d—” Felix didn’t finish the thought.

“Both Brandon and Chase have gone missing,” I said. “But I don’t think either of them was the, uh, hippie type, were they?”

“I didn’t think they were,” Felix grumbled. “But where are they? Where’d they go, huh? They run off to some commune to live with nature and find themselves?”

“Is that what you think happened?”

“I DON’T KNOW!” Felix smacked two hands down on the desk hard enough that I thought I could hear a new hush fall on the office outside.

“When did you last see Brandon?” I asked.

“He didn’t come in yesterday. He’s not here today. It was the day before. He came back to the office at six, did some paperwork, and then we both left around six-thirty. He was the last one here. He was going to be my main man, my main guy, but now Chase has poofed and disappeared. And he’s pulling the same trick!”

“Is there anyone you can think of who might benefit from the disappearance of two of your top guys?” I asked. “Do you have any particularly vicious rivalries? Any competitors who might take things extra-legal?”

Felix steepled his fingers in thought. “That would be some real old-school business tactics, wouldn’t it? Kidnapping a couple of guys from your competitor.” Felix snorted. “People don’t play like that these days, not anymore. When I was coming up, we did that once—”

Felix froze as he realized he might be admitting a crime, quickly shook his head, and went to correct himself.

“I mean, I heard about it. Some guys grabbed a guy from another company who was bidding on the same plot of land. Roughed him up a bit. Dropped him off a few miles out of town in the desert a day or two later.” Felix chuckled. “Gave ’em a good fright. That’s how it used to be, back when we weren’t all a bunch of losers with feelings. We played hardball, real hardball.”

“That sure sounds exciting.” Rosie was looking at him wide-eyed, starstruck by his tale of the exciting business world of the past.

“Yeah. It was fun back then. We worked hard, but the work was fun. We really got into it. Work and fun were the same thing. Now these schmucks want to ‘separate’ their work and leisure. For us, that used to be when the real work got done, when the best deals were made, when the rivalries were settled: on the golf course, in the nightclubs, in hotel suites. Shooting cans in the desert. People don’t know how to do that anymore.”

“After you saw Brandon,” I said, “he returned home. But then his wife kicked him out.”

“Kicked him out?” Felix smiled broadly at the thought. “I remember the first time my first wife kicked me out. Had to shack up with my sidepiece in a hotel for a week!” Felix chuckled again at the memory. “Good times.”

Gah. He was horrible. I kept a straight face and nodded, it was the best I could do. Rosie, however, was laughing away, and this was keeping Felix chuckling as well.

“You know,” Felix said, jabbing a finger at Rosie, “you’re alright. For a modern broad.”

She smiled even wider and gave a little self-deprecating shake of her head to dismiss the compliment. “He went to stay in a motel.”

“Is that so? What motel? You think he’s drowning his sorrows or something? Passed out on the motel bed, boohooing because his wife hasn’t got over her mood yet?”

“We dropped by the motel. He wasn’t there. He’s not answering his phone, either.”

“Huh.” Felix tapped his fingers on the table. “Maybe he’s out on the town. Tell ya what. If he’s gone to tie one on, gone on a real bender, spent all his savings on dancing girls and whiskey, I’ll forgive him if he comes back and begs. But he better be back here soon.”

“What if he’s gone somewhere to quietly contemplate his mistakes in a supportive environment?” I asked.

Felix snorted, smacked the desk, and let out a donkey-like, “HA!” He leaned back in his chair. “If he’s turned into a ‘my feelings are so important’ schmuck he’ll be out of here so fast he’ll smash his face on the door.”

Charming.

Back outside, we passed Lia as she was returning to the office. Rosie and I sat back down on the benches to regroup.

“You got on well with Felix,” I said to Rosie.

She giggled and flapped her hand. “Oh, big tough boozy businessman,” she played, “you’re so alpha and manly.”

“They should give you an Oscar. Best real-life performance.”

“That’d be great on my resume!”

“Yeah, it sure would. Okay, what—”

My phone started ringing. I smiled when I saw who it was. Just the girl I wanted to talk to.

“Hey, Em.”

Emily’s call was not purely social. My face paled as she spoke.

“Darn it…” I said quietly when I’d hung up. “Come on.” I squeezed Rosie’s wrist and pulled her to her feet.

“What’s happened?”

“They found Brandon.”

“Uh oh.”

“Yeah. Uh-oh is right.”

Rosie looked at me, concerned. She was right to be.

“They found Brandon. Dead.”

D

etective Elwood was standing by the side of Route 95, about thirty miles out of town. There were a bunch of Nevada Highway Patrol vehicles parked up and down the side of the road, and his black sedan was parked at the end.

He stood there, glowering and grumping, as we pulled up, parking behind his sedan at the end of vehicles already arrived, and walked toward him.

“Ya kill this one and dump his body out here?” Elwood barked at me.

“Afraid not,” I said. “But your victim, Brandon Silvio, is connected to the missing person I’m investigating.”

“What’re you doing out here anyway?” Rosie asked. “This is outside of Metro police jurisdiction.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Elwood snapped. “This is what we call inter-agency cooperation. I hate it.”

“Working together can be fun,” Rosie said. “Remember, teamwork makes the dream work.”

“I wish Highway Patrol would dream of dead bodies a little less,” Elwood grumbled. “I like to keep ’em to myself.”

“I’m going to see what’s going on,” Rosie said, walking off toward the crime scene that was taped-off with metal stakes in the ground.

“So what happened?” I asked.

Elwood jerked a thumb to the hive of activity in the desert. “Highway patrol got a call this morning and found the body a couple of hours ago. They think the victim was killed in the city and then brought to this location. He’s from Vegas, they think the killer just dumped his body here. So. Metro’s going to take the lead.”

“Lucky you,” I said.

“Yeah. Alright, spill. Who killed this schmuck?”

“I’m not sure we can answer that immediately. But we do know a lot about him. A lot.”

“Spill.”

“We’d love to, we really would, but…”

Elwood’s frown deepened. His brow creased into deep crevices. His eyes become stonier, and not in the good way (like my boyfriend’s dreamy Stone-y eyes). His mouth clamped shut and his top lip quivered.

“We just have a small, tiny, teenie-weenie favor we’d like you to do for us in return for our excellent and comprehensive information on your victim.”

“Hey!” said a bright and cheery voice approaching from my side. It was Emily and she’d just caught the tail end of our conversation. “What do you need?”

“We need to know who owns the car our missing person was seen getting into,” I said. “We’ve got the plate. Just need a name and address. If you can tell us that, we’ll give you everything we’ve got on Brandon Silvio, your victim.”

“As long as your missing person doesn’t end up as another homicide on my plate,” Elwood snapped.

Well, I couldn’t guarantee that, could I?!

“Uh, no promises.”

Emily squeezed my arm. “It’s okay, Tiff. I know you’re not going to murder the guy just to get on Elwood’s nerves.”

“Ya better not,” Elwood snapped. His face suddenly became a darker shade of dark. “Wait here. The highway idiots want something.”

Elwood stomped off just as Rosie walked back over to join Em and me. I could tell from the look on Rosie’s face that she must have heard something useful.

“We’ve been investigating Brandon,” I said. “There was something weird going on with him and our missing person the night he went missing. We think Brandon bundled him into a taxi, took him to a quiet spot in 34B, and beat the tar out of him. We’re not sure why yet.”

“Huh. Do you think maybe your missing person came after our victim in revenge?”

“Could be,” I said. “But we’d need to figure out a really good reason that he’s hiding out in Las Vegas. Must be something more than trying to avoid a wedding.”

“Hiding out until he got a chance to kill Brandon?”

“Doesn’t feel right. They’re guy-ish guys. You know, in a bad way. I think if he wanted to get his own back, he would have pulled him outside to throw down, he would have punched it out of him. He wouldn’t be shooting him and driving him to the desert. This smells like something else entirely.”

“Unconnected?”

“Yes. Except, no.”

Emily laughed as I tried to puzzle it out.

“Gotta be connected, they’re co-workers and they both went missing. Now we’ve found the one we weren’t looking for…”

My words trailed off and my eyes went out to the desert.

“You think your man could be out here, too?”

“Do business rivalries still get that rough in the twenty-first century, Em? These are two of the top guys from Sabertooth. Is there some old-school nineteen-seventies or eighties type trying to make a name for themselves out here, whacking people?”

“Gosh, I hope not. I heard about some of the old days, from when Elwood joined the force. Stories he heard from the old guys when he was a rookie. It was a different world back then.”

“Yeah, I bet. I hope it’s not coming back. Hey, how’d they find this body? There’s a lot of desert out there. Don’t Highway Patrol usually stay, you know, on the highway?”

Emily laughed. “Yeah, they do.” Rosie was bouncing on her toes beside me. Em turned to her. “You spoke to them?”

“Yes!”

“Go ahead then. I didn’t take their witness statement, NHP did, so you probably have the details down better than me anyway.”

“Okay! So, there’s these guys, seven of ’em, on a guys’ weekend—”

“Ugh. Another one? Bachelor party?”

Rosie shook her head. “No, these guys were twitchers—”

“Druggies?”

Rosie shook her head quickly again. “No, that’s tweakers. These men are twitchers. They’re into birds. They’re here from Vermont, come down to see some desert birds.”

“Don’t they got birds in Vermont?” Emily asked, mostly joking, but also a little curious as to what was so great about the feathered life down here.

“They wanted to see some different ones,” Rosie said. “Roadrunners, phainopepla, verdin, Harris’s hawk. That kinda stuff. Birdies they don’t get up New England way.”

“Was the dead body soaring majestically through the sky?” Emily asked, a grim smile on her face.

Rosie slapped her leg and laughed. “No!” After a couple more giggles, she said, “These guys were driving out to some bird-watching place, and they saw vultures circling. Black vultures. They said that although you can get black vultures in Vermont, they’d never seen one, so they pulled over to watch and snap some photos. They wanted to look at what they were circling over, to see if they could get some photos of the birds feasting once they landed.” Rosie pointed over toward the sealed-off crime scene area. “And they found him. Called it in.”

“They ID’d him fast,” I said.

“Yeah,” Emily said. “The body was in a shallow grave with all his belongings. His wallet was in there. The grave was too shallow and it had been, uh, excavated by the local wildlife. The vultures were waiting for their turn.”

“Yuck,” Rosie said.

“Coyotes?”

“Yep,” Emily said. “Luckily, they don’t go for wallets and ID cards, not when there’s still meat on the bones. Without the ID, we would have had to wait for lab results to discover who he was.”

Elwood stomped back over.

“Darn bird watchers should stay in their own darn state instead of coming out here finding dead schmucks they’ve got no right to be finding,” he said.

I patted him on the shoulder. “Keeps you in a job, big guy.”

“Big guy?”

I smiled sweetly. “Okay, you want to know about your victim?”

Elwood rumbled a long, low growl that I interpreted as Oh, yes, please! I’m thrilled, delighted, and excited to hear what you have to tell me, you beautiful, intelligent, genius of a woman! You’re the greatest, you really are, you’re just The Best! I’m so excited to do this! I mean, ya gotta think positive, right?

Trying not to laugh while I talked to myself in my head like a crazy person, we got to dealmaking.

Twenty minutes later, Elwood didn’t completely hate me.

We’d told him about Brandon’s problems with his wife, his possible affair, his love of drinking, that there was Doorbell camera footage available of some of his antics, the motel he was checked in at, and that we could introduce him to his boss and coworkers. Rosie handed over a few photos she’d grabbed from online sources, as well as some real ones she’d surreptitiously snapped while dealing with him.

It was enough to take a load off Elwood’s shoulders and give his investigation a kickstart.

And it got us a license plate in return.

I guess it shouldn’t have surprised us who it belonged to.

But, it did.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

“G

ood afternoon, Scratchy McMeow-meow-meow,” Rosie said as she spotted the cat in Jasmine’s living room.

The cat looked up at her, slow-blinked, and then went back to its silent contemplation.

The plate of the car that Chase climbed into had belonged to Jasmine, and when we pulled up outside we confirmed that the car from the convenience store video matched one of the ones in the lot. The night Chase disappeared, our last known visual record of him was now with Jasmine.

Rosie and I sat down on the sofa, and Jasmine sat down across from us. On the way over we’d been kicking over a few ideas:

Maybe Jasmine had kidnapped him, and had him locked away somewhere. Maybe she’d killed him. Maybe she’d given him such a fright he’d fled the city—that last possibility didn’t feel right to us. But with the way things had been surprising us during this case, maybe I wouldn’t have been surprised to be surprised again… if that made sense.

To my entirely different surprise, I heard movement from another room. With both Jasmine and her cat in the living room, I thought the place otherwise empty. But nope. There was someone else here.

It wasn’t.

“Hey,” said a familiar voice as someone exited from the kitchen. It was Tyler, dressed in sweatpants, a t-shirt, and running shoes. He waved at us, kissed Jasmine on the head, and headed for the door.

“Wait!” I called.

He turned around.

I looked pointedly at Tyler, then at Jasmine, then back at him.

His cheeks flushed slightly. “We’re… we’re back together,” he said.

“You are?” I turned to Jasmine. “But what about… y’know.”

“I’m going out for a run. Catch you in a bit!”

Tyler, looking a lot cheerier and a lot more energetic than the last time we’d seen him, closed the front door behind him. I turned back to Jasmine for an explanation.

“Hm? What about what?”

“What about Chase,” I said. “Are you, uh, over him?”

“For now.”

For now? Oh, that sure sounded like it bode well for the future of her relationship with Tyler.

“You’ve got a tattoo of him,” Rosie pointed out.

Jasmine smiled. “I do. And, check this out!”

Before we could stop her, Jasmine turned around and tugged at the collar of her baggy t-shirt, pulling it off her left shoulder. Last time we had been at her place we had seen the surprisingly lifelike tattoo of Chase on her right shoulder blade. This time, we could see… I squinted. It looked like someone had drawn on her with a Sharpie. Someone like Angel.

“That’s not a tattoo,” Rosie said flatly.

“Not yet,” Jasmine said chirpily. “We’re still working on the design. But Tyler isn’t very good at art, and it’s hard for me to reach back there. That’s the best we’ve been able to do so far. I think we might need to get the tattoo artist to finalize it,”

“Yeah, that might be a good idea,” I said. “Are you sure you want a tattoo of Tyler? How long have you been back together?”

Jasmine pulled out her phone, looked at the time, and then began counting off on her fingers.

“Thirty-seven hours. And a half. I could probably figure out the minutes, too, but it depends on your precise definition of ‘back together.’”

“You don’t think you should give it a little bit longer, to see if you’re still compatible?”

“No.” Jasmine gave us a sweet but blank smile.

“Are you over Chase?” Rosie asked.

“Yep. He’s missed the boat. If he wants me back, he’s really going to have to work hard for me.”

“And in that situation, what about Tyler…?” Rosie asked.

“He understands.”

She did not elaborate.

O-kay…

“Jasmine. We’d like to revisit some of what you told us last time we were here.”

“Okay, do you like my new eye shadow?”

She leaned forward. She’d applied the makeup with a generous touch and it made her appearance quite striking, to be kind.

“It’s great, but—”

“Tyler says he likes it better than my old one, he says it represents a new me, a new Jasmine. He says we’re going to be so happy together now, and that I’m going to forget all about Chase. I almost hope he’s right. But I think if Chase asked me to use my old eyeshadow, I’d have to consider it, you know?”

“That’s certainly something to think about,” I said. “Let’s talk about the last time you saw Chase. When we were here before, you told us you saw him on the Friday afternoon, and that you didn’t see him again.”

“Right,” she agreed, and waited patiently for our follow-up question, not a hint of concern in her eyes.

“We know that’s not true.”

“Yes it is.”

Rosie stood, took a step to Jasmine, leaned over, and showed her some images on her phone. They were of Chase climbing into Jasmine’s car.

“These were taken late on Saturday night, early on Sunday morning,” I said. “After that Friday.”

Jasmine nodded. “Oh, yeah. Right. He asked me for a ride. I forgot about it.”

Rosie and I looked at each other, then back at Jasmine, waiting for further explanation. Rosie sat back down. Jasmine sat quiet and patient, her slightly unnerving vacant smile now living on her lips.

“Can you tell us about that? Where did you give him a ride to?”

“I’d rather not talk about it.”

“We’d rather you did. It’s vitally important that you talk about it, Jasmine. We’re going to have to insist. Why did you tell us you hadn’t seen him since the afternoon before?”

Jasmine interlocked her fingers together tightly and rested them on her knees.

“I didn’t want to think about it. I like to remember the good times, the times we were happy together. Not the times we quarreled. I don’t want to focus on the negative parts from when we were together.”

“You weren’t together,” Rosie said.

“He got into my car, didn’t he?”

“Jasmine. You need to tell us about that evening. We want to know how you came to pick Chase up, and then what happened after. It’s very important.”

Jasmine looked down at her fingers, unclasped them, and then slapped her hands on her knees. She looked back up with a look of grim determination and gave us a nod.

“The thing about our relationship, is that Chase has been quite distant recently. You know, with him pretending to be with Lia so he could get his promotion at work. Sometimes I almost felt like he didn’t love me.”

She was loopy, but I gave her an encouraging smile to keep going.

“I called him regularly though, to keep the relationship alive. Sometimes I felt like I was the only one working at it. Almost like he didn’t care. But I did. So I called him every day, a few times, just to check-in. Usually, he didn’t answer.”

“And he changed his phone number several times, right?” Rosie added.

“Yeah,” Jasmine said, scrunching up her face in irritation at the memory. “Lia made him do that, I’m sure. I tried to talk to her, to explain to Lia that her behavior was really interfering in my relationship with Chase—but she just didn’t seem to get it. Some people are like that, aren’t they?”

“Oh yeah,” I agreed.

“It had been a while since Chase and I had spoken, and I knew he was probably busy with his bachelor weekend, but I decided to check in with him anyway, just to see how it was hanging. It was about midnight, maybe one a.m., and I couldn’t sleep. I was trying to figure out baby names. I was thinking Chase for a boy, but also, Chase for a girl. It could work for either, couldn’t it? But then I thought—what if we had a girl called Chase, and then we had a son as well? It wouldn’t be fair for the daughter to be named after their dad but not the son! I was getting myself in a right old pickle, trying to figure it through. What do you think we should do?”

I tried to frame a suitable response, but I was pleased when Rosie leaped in with some sense before I could formulate my thoughts on the matter.

“I think it’s best to wait until a child is born,” Rosie said, “and decide what suits them. My parents planned to call me Daffodil before I was born, but when they met me, they thought I didn’t look like a daffodil at all, I looked like the rosiest rose they’d ever seen. You should decide your babies’ names later, take a raincheck for now.” Rosie lifted her brows, elicited a nod and smile of agreement from Jasmine at her wisdom, and deftly got us back on track. “You called Chase, and he answered…?”

“Yep! I remember, I was smiling, because I thought to myself Of course he answered! Even though it’s his bachelor weekend, he’s still got time for me, because he cares!, you know?”

“When was the last time he answered, before that night?” I asked.

“Oh. It’s probably been a while. A year, maybe.” Jasmine nodded to herself. “Two, maybe. But this time, he had a moment, so he answered, and he asked me for a favor, he asked me to come and pick him up, he said he wanted to have a romantic evening with me.”

“Were those his exact words?”

She shook her head. “No, he said he needed a ride back to his hotel. But I knew what he meant. Now, he was outside of a convenience store at the time, in 34b, and he said he was going to go inside to get some coffee or something, and that I was to hurry over as fast as I could.”

“I wonder why he answered when you called, instead of taking an Uber or something,” I was more talking to Rosie than Jasmine, but it was our suspect who provided the answer.

“Oh, he’s banned from Uber. And Lyft.” Jasmine giggled. “He’s hilarious when he’s had a few drinks, but not everyone appreciates his sense of humor. It’s very dry.”

“Rude,” Rosie translated.

“Yes, it was very rude of them to ban him just because his jokes whooshed over the heads of the drivers. They’re too sensitive, that’s the problem with people these days, isn’t it? Too sensitive, can’t take a joke. Anyway, I guess I called at just the right time. He answered, and I could tell he was tired, because he sighed, and he said, ‘I know I’m going to regret this, but could you give me a ride back to my hotel?’”

“And you said yes.”

“Heck yes, I did. Stand by your man. That’s what they say, isn’t it? We may have been having a rough patch, but I was going to be there for him. I had to be. I said goodbye to Scratchy McMeow-meow-meow and told him I was going to rescue his daddy. He was very excited. Scratchy McMeow-meow-meow has never even met his daddy properly. I tried to bring him to Sabertooth’s office once, just so he could meet his dad, but Lia wouldn’t even let me in. She called me a crazy witch and called the police, and then Felix came out and he yelled so loud it scared poor little Scratchy McMeow-meow-meow and we had to leave. It was a shame because I think if I could have stuck around until the police got there I could have explained and they would have helped me get inside. But no, Lia and Felix ruined it.” Jasmine called across the room. “Didn’t they, baby? They stopped you from meeting your daddy!”

I cleared my throat to draw her attention. This train needed to get back on the tracks. “You drove to the convenience store.”

“Yep. And there was Chase! It was so romantic, he’d torn off his button-up shirt and was holding it in his hand, he looked just like a romantic hero.”

“A romantic hero with a broken nose, bruised ribs, and reeking of whiskey,” Rosie said.

“Yes!” Jasmine bobbed her head in eager agreement. “Exactly! Like from an action movie. I said to him—” Jasmine put on a deep voice for her impression of herself, “—‘Babe, you need a ride?’ and he said,—” She put on an even deeper voice now, “‘I do.” Dramatic pause. “You’re my ride-or-die, Jasmine. My ride-or die.—” Jasmine clasped her hands together, one symbolizing hers, the other Chase’s. “‘Let’s go back to my hotel and make this a night to remember!’ And I said, ‘I’ll always have your back babe.’”

Jasmine closed her eyes and sighed wistfully at the heavily-doctored memory.

“Were they his exact words?” I said.

“Close enough,” Jasmine said. “He got in the car, but that’s when the trouble started.”

Aha.

Now we were getting to the juicy part.

Finally, the mystery of where Chase had disappeared to was going to be revealed. We could get this case cleared up before dinner.

“Trouble…?”

“Yes. See, I asked what kind of room we had, and he said it wasn’t our room, it was his suite and he was sharing it with The Boys. Do you know them?”

“Yes.”

“They’re his college friends. They’re pretty darn cool. Except, when I told Chase that they were going to have to find somewhere else to stay, that the suite was going to be just for the two of us, things didn’t go well.”

“No?”

“No. The thing you have to understand about Chase is that he’s a good man, a really good man. He stands by you, you know? Doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re on Chase’s team, he’s got your back. So of course he wasn’t going to kick his friends out of the suite in the middle of the night. But I got to admit, I was acting a bit crazy that night.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I got pretty argumentative. I’m not as good a person as Chase. I wanted him to kick all those guys out, so it’d just be the two of us, and I wasn’t shy about telling him so. I told him they were big boys, they could find somewhere to say, and that anyway, this is Las Vegas, they could just go out and party all night! Hit up a twenty-four-hour buffet! Go get married. Whatever.”

“And what did Chase say?”

“He kept saying that I wasn’t even coming into the hotel! He was acting like all he wanted was a ride back to the Tremonte, that we weren’t going to spend the rest of the night, and the rest of our lives, together. It was really weird.”

“He had a very weird night all around,” I said.

“I should have been kinder to him,” Jasmine said sadly. “Then things wouldn’t have got so bad.”

“You didn’t drive him to the hotel,” I said flatly.

“I was going to…”

“Where did you drive him to?”

“I thought we needed some time to just really talk things through, really understand where me and Chase were as a couple. This whole thing with him pretending to marry Lia was really putting a damper on our relationship. At least I thought so. What do you think?”

“It’s almost like you didn’t have one,” Rosie said sympathetically.

“Exactly! That’s what I said. And you’ll never guess what he said.”

I bet I could.

“Where did you go?”

“Okay, so, I drove us down East Flamingo Road—”

“That’s not how you get from 34b to the Tremonte,” Rosie said.

“Yes, I took a scenic route, so we could have a good chat about everything. But he made me pull over, he said something about me taking him to the wrong place? And that I was, like, kidnapping him? I totally wasn’t, I just wanted to take him somewhere for a while, so he could have a good think about our future.”

“You dropped him off on East Flamingo?”

“Yeah. Outside that storage place. Big Ben— no, that’s not it, Big Buster’s Storage. That’s the one. You know it?”

“Nope. But you’re saying you just dropped Chase off?”

“Yeah. We had quite a blowup. He got me to pull over, and then he demanded to know if I’d drive him back to his hotel or not, and I said only if we could make it a romantic weekend, and then he said I was crazy, and I… I kind of lost it. I don’t like it when people call me crazy. I’m sensitive. So, I just kind of went—rowl!”

Jasmine lifted her hand, made her fingers into claws, and swiped at the air in front of her.

I raised my eyebrows at her. “You scratched him?”

“He didn’t even want to come and see his baby!” Jasmine pointed over at Scratchy McMeow-meow-meow. What kind of daddy doesn’t even want to see their own baby? He said it was my cat, not our cat. And so I said, well this is what your baby is going to think of you when I tell him, and so I scratched him across the face. I thought that might put some sense into him.”

“And did it?” Rosie asked.

“No. He called me a crazy witch, and then he got out of the car. I gave him another chance, but he didn’t want it. So, I left him.” Jasmine sighed. “Sorry I didn’t tell you before, but it was an emotional evening and I didn’t think it was important.”

“Did you call him again that evening?”

“Are you kidding?” Jasmine asked, mock-shocked, hands on her hips.

“That’s a ‘no’, then,” I said.

Jasmine tilted her head. “Uh, I did, like, a thousand times—to give him a chance to say sorry—but he didn’t answer. He hasn’t answered any of my calls since then. I know he’s busy, but I’m beginning to worry.”

Rosie and I tried a few more questions to see if there was any more to her story, any other pieces of information she might have neglected to tell us. All we got was more deluded ramblings.

Just as we were leaving, the front door opened again.

“Chase!” Jasmine said, leaping to her feet. Then her face fell.

It was not Chase.

“Just me,” Tyler said as he stepped back inside. His clothes were damp with sweat, and his forehead was shiny.

“Oh. Yay.” Jasmine waved at him forlornly. “Wanna work on the tattoo design some more?”

“You know it, babe. Lemme grab a shower and then let’s order Chinese.”

“Chase loves Chinese,” Jasmine said, grinning.

Tyler’s smile faltered a little, then he headed for the bathroom,

“Good luck,” I said to the pair of them as we left.

They were gonna need it.

But not us.

“We’ll have this wrapped up by dinner, boss!” Rosie said happily.

“Exactly what I was thinking.”

CHAPTER NINETEEN

B

ig Buster’s Storage had an entrance just off East Flamingo. Like the Arts District, it would have been quiet at between one and two in the morning when Jasmine claimed she’d been out here. We hopped out of the car and Rosie pointed to the top of the sliding metal gate that served as the entrance for Big Buster and his customers.

“Look. There’s a camera.”

“It won’t work,” I said. “We can’t be that lucky. It’s been cameras all the way down.”

Rosie shook her head. “Nuh-uh. We’re on a roll. A cameraroll.” Rosie paused to giggle at her pun. “I bet you ten bucks we get the footage.”

“Hmm. On second thoughts. We have had a bit of a lucky streak.”

Like many storage units, the staff was small. At any one time, there were either one or two people on duty, managing everything: working the phones, manning the front desk, and serving as security. None of their tasks took up much time. It was the kind of job that let you sit around most of the day, with just occasional work required if a potential new customer arrived, or if someone needed help. Perhaps a phone call once every few hours.

There were two people working behind the front desk in a small and dingy office. A girl called Sandy and a man called Simon. After explaining our reason for being there, they both perked up. It was a dull job and a couple of PIs coming in on a case was exciting.

Simon was a defeated-looking man in his forties. He slumped and slouched and had a weariness about him that a good night’s sleep wouldn’t fix. Sandy was younger, in her twenties, and was like a peppy goth, with black clothes, rich dyed-black hair, pale skin, and a cheery and energetic demeanor. Sandy’s face had lit up when we entered, whereas Simon’s had fallen. Sandy was standing, trying to keep still but bouncing on her feet. Simon sat back in a worn and beaten leather chair and looked up at us with wet-looking eyes.

“If you want to look in one of the units, I’m afraid we can’t help you,” Simon said. “We’d be fired so fast we wouldn’t even get the door open.”

“No, it’s not that,” I said. “We’re only interested in the street outside. But we noticed you had a camera on the gate that would have caught what we’re interested in.” I told them the day and the approximate time and that we were looking for a car that had pulled over.

Sandy’s expressive face lit up. She had bleached-blond streaks in her otherwise jet-black hair, which was tied into two incredibly long twin-tails, a black bow in each. She had very dark purple lipstick that seemed to have a bright vibrancy to it, despite the muteness of the color. She had a silver ring through her lower right lip, and she tugged on it every now and then in an excited tic. She tugged it then, and then snapped her ring-covered hands back to her sides, like it was a habit she was trying to stop.

“Hey, I was working that night!” Sandy bounced up and down, the heel of her black leather boots lifting and falling. “Is this about the guy who was outside?”

“That’s exactly what it’s about,” I said. “You saw him?”

“Yep! Our security light went on—it’s on a motion sensor. So, that perked me up! First, I looked at the screens, to check the security feed. There was a car stopped outside. We have twenty-four-hour access, but at night we close the gates. They could have buzzed to be let in, but they didn’t. They weren’t here for the storage facility. It looked interesting, so I went outside to check it out.”

“You weren’t afraid?” Rosie asked. “You were here on your own, at night, right?”

Sandy shrugged. “What’s to be afraid of? I was on my side of the fence, the gate was shut. Nothing to be scared of. I went out there, and I heard a guy and a girl arguing. The car was pulled over, and the passenger door was open.”

“Could you hear what they were saying?”

“Yes, but, I’d missed the beginning, I didn’t have the context, so it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. But the guy was saying that they’d been over for years? I think he meant that they’d been dating. But she was saying something about him needing to come and see their baby? That didn’t make sense if they’d been broken up for years, right? I mean, if there was a baby years ago it’s probably a kid by now, right?”

“Right,” I agreed. “I think she was talking about her cat. And she thinks the guy, Chase, is it’s, uh, daddy.”

“Oh. Weird. Anyway, she said something about him promising a romantic night in the Tremonte—that place on the Strip, I think?—and he said he didn’t. Not at all. He said he was on his bachelor weekend with his buddies. It didn’t make sense at all, like, how could they be so confused?”

“Long story,” I said. “Then what happened?”

“The chick yelled and then, I think she scratched him? He hopped out of the car, and he was clutching his face. I was only a few yards away, on my side of the fence, and the security light was pretty bright. He had these big red marks down the side of his face. She got him good.”

“Where’d he go?”

“Well, he closed the door, and the car left. This guy—he hadn’t seen me, he hadn’t looked into our yard—he was just standing and staring after the car. He looked kind of shocked, too. Like he’d had one of those days, you know? He started talking to himself. He was saying something about how he never should have gone along with it, he never should have met her. That wasn’t too surprising given the circumstances!”

“Indeed,” I agreed. “So what did he do? Did he walk away?”

“Nope. The strangest thing happened. Well, not the strangest, but I was surprised. He was standing there, looking all shell-shocked. I was considering calling out to him, to see if he needed me to call him a cab or something, but then, real quiet, this big car pulls up. A black sedan. It was like it had been lying in wait or something. Or following him. It pulled up, and the guy, he just stared at it for a while, real dumb-like. Then, the back door opened, and after a moment he got in.”

“He got in another car?” I could hear the excitement in my voice. This was some good information! I couldn’t help but feel a buzz of excitement. We really could solve this by dinner!

“Yeah. But then something else weird happened. Before the door closed and it drove off, I heard…” Sandy pulled at her lip ring for a moment with a black-polished thumb and finger. She wrinkled her nose a little. I raised my eyebrows at her to get her to continue, to tell us what she’d heard. She released her lip from between her fingers and said, “It sounded like a smack.”

“A smack?” Rosie mimed swinging her palm through the air. “A smack smack?”

“Yeah. Like someone had got him across the face real good.” Sandy held out her palms, she couldn’t explain it. “Then the door closed and the car left. And that was the highlight of my evening.”

“Man, I always get the boring shifts,” Simon said to Sandy, a hint of accusation in his dull voice.

“No you don’t! You had the night with the parrot!”

“That was a year ago,” he complained. “You had the cat since then, and the wrong pizza delivery.”

“They were not that exciting!”

“Free pizza is always exciting. I never, never once in my life, got a free pizza.”

“I guess that was lucky,” Sandy admitted. “I’m sure you’ll have an interesting night soon.” She turned back to us. “You wanna watch the video? I bet we can pull it up for you. And they’re not our customers, so no problem with the privacy rules!”

“I don’t know if we should do that, Sandy…”

“Yes we should, we totally should! You wanna watch it?” she asked us.

Yep. We absolutely did.

Rosie and I sat side-by-side in chairs pulled close together, while Sandy stood behind us. She had a hand on the back of each of our chairs when one or the other of them wasn’t gesticulating or leaning over to help us operate the security system. We didn’t need too much help. We’d had a lot of practice recently.

Soon the three of us were watching the video, from the moment Jasmine’s car pulled to a stop, to the moment the big black sedan pulled away with Chase in tow. Everything happened pretty much as Sandy said. The security system even had microphones, and the dialogue was largely as Sandy had reported, though it made a little more sense to us, since we knew the people involved.

Chase had a clear trail of four red marks on the side of his face where Jasmine had scratched him, along with his swollen nose. When he moved, it was with a wince, and a hand clutched against his chest, like every move caused him pain.

We watched it unfold with interest, but it was when the black sedan was there that things really got intriguing—and informative—for us.

“Could you turn it up?” I said to Sandy as the black sedan pulled to a stop. I wanted to hear everything.

“All the way, loud as it will go!” Rosie said, fidgeting excitedly beside me.

Sandy reached over and with her long fingers, painted with a very shiny black polish, she twiddled a dial until we could hear a loud hiss behind the quiet but throaty solid-sounding purr of the S-Class Mercedes.

The rear door swung open. Chase, on the camera, looked surprised when he peered in.

“Get in,” said a voice.

It sounded familiar. But with no face to go with it, and only two words, I didn’t ID it immediately. But I didn’t have to. We had Chase for that.

“Felix. What are you doing here?”

CHAPTER TWENTY

“I

said, ‘Get in’.”

Rosie and I stared, slack-jawed, as we watched the person we’d been looking for climb, wincingly, into the car of the person who had hired us to find him.

The last thing we heard before the car door slammed and they were whisked away was a muffled grunt. It sounded like someone had been thumped, hard.

Then, the car was gone.

“Felix, huh?” Sandy said. “You know him?”

“Yeah. Yeah, we do.”

We were quiet while we thought about what we’d seen and the implications.

“Y’all need anything else…? Want to watch some more security tapes?”

I stood up. Rosie took a few minutes to capture the video footage on her phone.

“Do you know how long this security system keeps backups? It’s not going to be erased tomorrow or something is it? The police may need a copy.”

“I think they keep it for several months. Maybe a year. But there’s a tagging feature. I’ll tag it not to be deleted, just in case. Do you think the police are going to come around today? I’m not sure we’ll handle the excitement.”

“Not today. But soon.” I walked to the door, thinking, and thinking, and thinking some more. “Soon.”

Rosie and I sat over coffees in a cute independent café that specialized in comfy chairs with colorful cushions.

“What’s going on, boss? I’m confused,” Rosie said, irritated at herself for not being able to understand it.

I knew how she felt. I also felt like I was forgetting something.

“We need to take a deep dive on our client. And then, we’ll go interview him. Let’s gather everything we can before we confront him. If we’re going to be on the wrong end of that temper of his, I want to have all our ducks in a row first.”

“Shall we make a night of it?” Rosie suggested. “Jan could come over and we could dig up everything on him that’s online. I bet there are stories about him. And Jan can probably pull records that she shouldn’t. Get the dirt on him.”

“That’s a good idea. We’ll really get into it, then tomorrow we’ll go to Sabertooth first thing and confront him. I was hoping to have this wrapped up by dinner. But now, I’m not sure where it’s going to go.”

“We won’t be done by dinner,” Rosie said, “but we can have it crunched by lunch.”

“Crunched by lunch? Now you’re making me hungry. We’re not doing pizza again are we?”

“If Jan’s coming over…”

Jan didn’t understand why people ate other things.

“I feel like I’m missing something, Rosie. Like I’m forgetting something.”

My phone rang.

“Jan’s in,” Rosie said, having successfully messaged our friend.

A name and a photo popped up on my phone screen.

“Oh, shoot! I invited Stone over to cook with me!”

I quickly answered the phone.

Stone spoke first, and I’m glad I let him.

“Hon, I know it’s a date night, but…”

“But what?” I asked lightly. “Has something come up? Did you forget?”

“No, of course not. But my friend just got into town and I wondered—could we maybe invite him? You could invite Rosie, too.”

“Yes!” I said a little too excitedly.

Rosie called into the phone. “Can Jan come, too?”

“Sure,” Stone said.

And just like that, we had ourselves a whole dinner party, and I hadn’t forgotten my date. Nuh-uh. Not me.

I

got Rosie to search up some impressive yet easy-to-make dishes that you can work on whilst also carrying out investigations and solving murders. I’m not sure if the recipes she found were labeled with exactly that level of precision, but she came up with the goods.

We carried grocery bags into my apartment, to find Stone already there. Beside him was an athletic guy with short reddish-brown hair, wearing a rather fetching skirt.

“Hi, Niels,” I said. “Long time no see.”

“Aye! It’s been too long.”

Niels was Scottishish. He’d lived in the States since he was a teenager, and only turned his accent all the way up when he was trying to show off his Scottishness. He’d done that the first time we met him, but usually, he sounded a bit more, y’know, normal.

“How are your loch monsters doing?” Rosie asked.

“Aye, they’re doing great. Keeping a low profile. I was just back over there checking on them. They’re grand.”

Niels walked over to me, proffering a bottle wrapped in shiny gold and silver wrapping paper.

“I brought you a bottle,” he said, almost sounding a little shy. “It should keep you going a while.”

“With five of us, I don’t like its chances of surviving the night,” I said with a laugh.

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Niels said.

Suspicious, I tugged at a string near the top and the wrapper came neatly away.

Niels had indeed brought a bottle. But it wasn’t a bottle of wine, it was a bottle of extra virgin olive oil.

“Oh!” I said, happily surprised. I held the olive green bottle out in front of me and gave it my very best critical analysis. “This looks great.”

“It is. Hard to get the good stuff in regular stores, but this—it’s the real deal.”

“Just what we need. We’re cooking Italian tonight!”

Jan arrived, and Stone and I left her, Niels, Rosie, and Snowflake in the living room while we hit the kitchen.

“We’ve got to keep them out of here,” I said. “Too many cooks spoil the creamy garlic parmesan pasta and espresso mousse.”

“The salad, too,” Stone added. He was holding the olive oil bottle now and he kept stealing glances at it. “Let’s try this.”

“Now?”

“Now.”

Amused at his enthusiasm, I grabbed a small saucer and snapped the end off a French stick from my grocery bags. Stone carefully poured a measure of the oil into the center of the saucer and I offered him a hunk of bread.

We dipped our bread so that it soaked up a generous amount of the greenish oil, and then popped it into our mouths.

Not having high expectations for my oily bread I was taken aback when the flavor hit.

“That’s good!” I said, catching some crumbs and covering my mouth. I chewed some more, swallowed some more. “That is so good! What’s in it? How’d they flavor it like that?”

I grabbed the bottle again and looked at the front. It was all written in Italian, but I expected to find some hint of the added flavors among some slightly familiar words, or perhaps little pictures on the artwork.

Nope.

“They didn’t flavor it,” Stone said. “That’s what it tastes like.”

“But it tastes so good!”

“Exactly. That’s why they’re so protective of it. The fact that people sell fakes really upsets them. Good olive oil doesn’t need any flavorings, it’s one of the best-tasting things there is.”

I grabbed the bottle and poured more of the oil back into the saucer. This time when I dipped my bread, I let it soak up as much as it could, completely saturating it. I had to lean over and pop it in my mouth quickly to avoid dripping oil everywhere.

“Mmm!” I said appreciatively. Then, again, louder, out toward the living room. “Mmm!” After I swallowed, I called, “The oil’s delicious Niels!”

With some regret—I wanted to keep it all to myself—I chopped up some bread, filled a small dip bowl with oil, and brought it out to the rest of our guests. I left them discussing just how amazingly delicious it was, while Niels told them all about the oil.

Stone and I got back to work in the kitchen. I followed the directions Rosie gave me to prepare my creamy parmesan pasta, while Stone prepared a salad and turned another French stick into garlic bread.

For once, I was looking forward to the salad. I was going to turn it into a soup with the amount of that oil I was going to pour all over it.

With the mains under control, I got to work on the dessert. I’m not the world’s greatest chef, but the recipe Rosie had given me was easy enough if I followed the instructions. Suppressing any rebellious instinct, I might have had, I did as the recipe told me.

“Try this,” I said to Stone, feeding him a spoonful of the dessert.

Stone, as usual, took his job very seriously. He tasted it, then he contemplated it some, before passing judgment.

“That,” he said, and paused just to tease me, “that… is the best chocolate dessert I’ve ever tasted.”

I must have looked startled because he put an arm on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “Really. That’s incredible.”

I dug a spoon into my espresso chocolate mousse and gave it a taste for myself. I think my eyes went even wider.

“Mmm! That is good, if I do say so myself. Wow.”

“What’s better?” Stone asked. “The oil or the chocolate mousse?”

For once, it was a tough question to answer.

I sneaked out of answering by stealing a kiss instead.

R

osie had brought a can of fancy cat food—I assume it was fancy, it said so right on the label—so that Snowflake could join us for the meal.

It was a roaring success, and soon everyone was pleasantly and pleasingly stuffed.

“You should cook more often, boss,” Rosie said. “That was amazing!”

“Only thanks to your recipe-finding, and my incredible assistant.”

Stone squeezed my leg under the table in thanks.

“Aye, that was some first-class grub,” Niels said. “Now, Rosie was telling me about a suspect you’ve been investigating? Felix?”

“He’s supposed to be our client, not a suspect,” I said.

“But now he’s both,” Rosie said happily.

“Can I help?” Niels asked. It wasn’t an offer of assistance, he was asking if he could join in the fun of an investigation. “I love digging up dirt.”

“Yeah?” I said.

Niels nodded seriously and hooked a thumb in Stone’s direction. “You should see what I dug up on this fella.”

Stone’s face remained impassive.

“Uh, what did you dig up on him?” I asked with some small hesitation.

Niels grinned at me. He leaned forward. For a moment, just the briefest moment, I thought he was going to say something awful.

“Nothing,” Niels said finally.

“Nothing?” I repeated.

“Aye. He’s a ghost. Aren’t you Stone?”

“Nope,” he said. “I just prefer to keep a low profile.” After a pause. “That way I’ll never get caught.”

“Smart man,” Niels said. “Right, let’s see what we can find out on your cat man.”

“His company’s called Sabertooth,” Rosie said. “I think Felix is more of a tiger than a housecat.”

“Even better.”

Jan, Niels, and Rosie took the dining table as their own, while Stone and I moved over to the sofa to relax for a while. After doing the hard work of cooking, we deserved it, and I was sure the three of them would be able to find everything there was to find without my assistance.

Stone and I watched a cooking show, snuggled up on the sofa, while our lackeys worked behind us. Ahem. Friends.

I was almost nodding off when a meeting was called. The research team had some news.

“Right!” Jan said, her voice booming me fully awake again. “Team, what have we got? Rosie!”

“Yes sir ma’am!” Rosie said quickly. “Uh, Felix has a surprisingly active online presence. He’s on Facebook and LinkedIn every day, sharing his management tips. He’s very eager to encourage managers to be ‘firm but fair’ with their workers, saying it’s the best way to run a business efficiently. He’s quite abrasive online though, and a lot of people don’t like him. Also, a lot of non-managers say he sounds like the worst boss ever. Felix always rises to the bait, and tells them that they’d never get a job with him because he doesn’t employ hippies.”

“Niels!” Jan commanded.

“Aye, ma’am,” Niels said, his voice warm with amusement. “Felix spends even more time on these sites than it first appears. He doesn’t just post under his own name, but he has an alter-ego, called OldSchool BusinessGuy. He posts a lot about the ‘old days’, and how much better it was to be a businessman back when deals were done in bars and golf courses, and how you could ‘get things done’ much more easily with the help of sweeteners. He likes to rabbit on about how there’s too much red tape now, and how back in the day if someone shoved regulations in your face you could shut them up by shoving something else back in their face. Something like a gun.”

“What a treat he must be to interact with online,” I said. “ And Off. Okay, what else do we have on him? Anything?”

“Yeah,” Jan said. “I went through some of his previous company records. He’s done work with the Lindseys, and with the Pike, amongst others.”

Ugh. They were some of the worst business people we’d met in the city. The kind that straddled the line between legal and illegal—and sometimes they weren’t straddling. They were off running around on the wrong side of that line causing havoc.

“And under his name OldSchool BusinessGuy,” Niels added, “there is one other thing he’s commented or alluded to several times.”

“Yeah?” I said.

“He has made a lot of ‘jokes’ about making people disappear.” Of course he had. “A lot.”

I couldn’t wait to hear what he had to say for himself.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

T

he next morning, equipped with a fresh heap of new information about our client, we went to the Sabertooth offices to confront Felix.

We were going to lay it on thick, and squeeze a confession out of him. Then we were going to find out why he killed his niece’s fiancé.

It was just coming up for ten o’clock, and Felix was already talking to someone in his office. The doors and blinds we closed, but that didn’t stop his booming voice and temper from escaping. We were hovering outside with Lia, who was holding a stack of papers that she had been carrying from the printer when we entered. She’d walked over to intercept us before we knocked on Felix’s door. She said it’d be better to wait, she didn’t think it would take long.

“He’s gonna fold, just you listen,” Lia said, a knowing smile on her otherwise grim face.

I wasn’t even sure what we were listening to yet. It takes a moment to tune in and figure out what’s going on when you arrive mid-rant.

“More money? MORE MONEY?”

“Please, Daddy, I lost my phone, I just need a little top-up so I can get a new one. And some clothes. Just transfer five kay and I promise I won’t ask for any more until it’s time for my allowance.”

Aha. Daddy. It was his troublesome daughter.

“Misty’s always losing stuff,” Lia said to us in a low voice. “Sometimes I wonder if she isn’t selling half the things she supposedly loses for more money. Though he gives her enough. She’s so spoiled.”

“FIVE THOUSAND? You can get a phone for fifty bucks. When I was your age we took a nickel to the payphone. Get a burner.”

“An iPhone costs more than a nickel, Daddy, and I cannot use a burner. Be reasonable. You don’t want people thinking your daughter’s slumming it, do you? Let’s make a deal. I won’t get the pro model, and I’ll wear the same old outfits, just give me a grand for the regular model and we’ll call it even.”

“Even? How are we even?” Felix was still grousing but we could all tell he was caving. Lia raised her eyebrows—told you so.

“I’ll get out of your hair?”

Felix grumbled and muttered on the other side of the door.

“Yay! You’re the best, Daddy!”

“Told you he’d fold,” Lia said. “Misty has him wrapped around her little finger.”

“Now scram! I’ve got a business to run. Make sure you get those college applications in!”

“Love you, Daddy!”

The door swung open, and Felix’s daughter, Misty, swished out, her blonde hair bouncing on her shoulders, a wave of perfume like the pure distillation of the season of spring floating around her. Misty wore a gorgeous black cashmere sweater over dark jeans. She ran her eyes up and down us as she passed, but she didn’t stop. She had twin tear streaks running through her mascara—part of the waterworks act to wheedle money out of Felix, no doubt.

“I like your sweater,” Rosie called to her.

Misty didn’t hear. Or if she did, she didn’t acknowledge us. She headed straight out the office doors to a car waiting for her outside. We turned our attention back toward the man we’d come to see.

“What’re ya gawking at?” Felix called out to us as he spotted us waiting outside.

“Good luck,” Lia whispered to us and headed back to work.

We went into Felix’s den, closing the door behind us. It was time for some explanations.

Rosie and I sat down without being asked, showing him we meant business.

“Felix, when was the last time you saw Chase?”

Felix’s eyes locked on us, and a slow smile began to spread across his lips, revealing wicked-looking yellowed teeth. It was a look of grim satisfaction.

But why was he looking satisfied? That wasn’t the look I was seeking. Fear, disappointment, worry, concern—something like that was what we wanted.

Rosie’s eyes flashed my way, her eyebrows slightly lifted, her face questioning me. She was reading his body language the same way as me.

It was all wrong for a murder suspect. I tried again.

“Felix,” I said coldly. “You lied to us. We know that Chase was in your car the evening he disappeared.”

His slow smile with his sharp yellow teeth had turned into a leer of a grin. My stomach went icy. This man was not in the slightest bit worried that he would be charged with Chase’s disappearance.

Felix clasped his hands on the table in front of him and slowly nodded at us.

“So you are doing your job.” He sniffed. “Good.”

“Excuse me?” I said.

“Your job. You’re doing it. I presume you finally saw me dropping Chase off back at The Tremonte on the security camera, right?”

I gave him a cold hard stare to try and squeeze more out of him while I tried to think. My face was frozen while my mind raced. We hadn’t seen him dropping off Chase at the Tremonte, we’d seen him picking him up at the storage unit. I tried to figure out what it meant—had he driven him straight back to the hotel?

While I was deciding what to say, Rosie took the direct path.

“We saw you picking Chase up at Big Buster’s Storage.”

Felix looked blank.

“Out on East Flamingo?”

Felix’s lips curled back in another sinister smile. “Ah. Yes. You got footage from there, too?” He unclasped his hands, then slow-clapped them three times, each palm strike a sharp crack, before lacing them back together in front of him. “Clever girls.”

“Felix, you told us the last time you saw him was in the bar earlier in the evening.”

“Does it matter? The point is, he was at the hotel. Where I saw him before then isn’t important.”

I gave him a hard stare. Now he was irking me. “We’ve spent a considerable amount of time—and your money—following Chase’s whereabouts since he was in the hotel bar. If you’d told us what you knew we could have saved time and money. We might have him back by now.”

Felix gave a single shake of his head. “No. You were hired to find Chase, who went missing from the hotel. It wasn’t my job to fill in all the blanks for you. It was a test, and you passed. I might hire you again, once this has been cleared up. Now you know he was back at the hotel. The question is, where did he go next?”

I hated to admit it, but I believed him. If he’d taken Chase off to the desert and whacked him his demeanor would be nothing like what he was displaying. He was confident that the evidence would show he returned Chase to the hotel. Perhaps not entirely safe and sound, but in one piece.

We’d need to review the security footage back at the Tremonte to confirm it was true. But in my heart I knew it was.

If Felix killed Chase, it wasn’t when he got in the back of his car.

That meant I needed more answers about what the heck had been going on.

“What time did you drop him off?” I asked.

Felix pushed out his lower lip. “Two? Three? Somewhere around there.”

“How did you know to pick him up?” Rosie asked.

“He looked like he needed a break. And a wakeup call.”

Rosie and I gave him hard stares. We wanted direct answers.

Felix held up his palms in front of him. “Hey, don’t get mad. We’re all on the same side here. Here’s something you need to know about me: I value loyalty. It’s key.”

We continued to stare. Speaking would probably make him draw this out more.

“I had a drink with him in the hotel bar. Then, I decided to watch him. See what he got up to. He’s marrying my niece and I needed to make sure he wasn’t going to cause problems for my family. I’d heard about him and some dancer, from the Gemstones. Boys will be boys, of course, but you’ve got to be smart about these things. I needed to know if he was an idiot. If he was going to run off with some other broad. I’m not paying for a wedding if it’s going to be over in a few months, you know what I mean?”

“You followed him? Did you see him with Brandon?”

“Yeah. My driver tailed them from the taxi stand. When they got to the Arts District, I was thinking, what the heck are they doing out here? Then I saw. Gave me a laugh.”

I thought I knew what he was referring to.

“You saw him and Brandon fight?”

“Yep. Less of a fight, more of a beatdown. I figured it was good for them. I was applauding from the back of my car. Not that they knew I was watching. Chase was too drunk and Brandon was too focused on the matter at hand.”

“Why were they fighting?”

“I figure it was a bit of friendly competition. I loved to see it. Chase is a bit full of himself, and Brandon bringing him down a peg or two would be good for him. Ground him.” Felix leered and smacked the table. “Ground him? More like floored him!” Felix chuckled to himself. “But yeah, Brandon got Chase drunk, took him to a quiet alley, beat the tar out of him. I almost intervened, but I figured it would be good for Chase. And if the rumor about him and the dancer was true, then he needed a bit of a smack. When I picked him up, I told him, if he gets caught messing around on Lia, he’s going to look back on that beating with fond memories.”

“But you don’t know why Brandon attacked him?”

“Like I said, it was probably a rivalry. Brandon wasn’t happy that Chase got promoted to top dog. Chase is marrying my niece, so I have to support him, you know? But we’re growing. There’s room for Brandon, too. And some rivalry in the meantime’s good. You don’t see enough of that these days.”

“What happened immediately after the brawl?” I asked.

“Brandon walked away. Shoulders back, swagger in his steps. Like he was the king of Las Vegas. Reminded me of me, and I liked it. Thought to myself, that guy’s going places. Guess I was wrong about that. Saw him head down the street then I don’t know where he went. Probably grabbed a taxi or called a car and went home I guess.”

“And Chase?”

Felix snorted.

“Sat there looking sorry for himself for a while. He wasn’t like, lying dead in the alley, he was sitting up, back against the wall, legs pulled up, arms wrapped around them like he was a real sad sack. I was thinking I might have to call the wedding off, kick him to the curb, if he didn’t get his act together.”

“Call the wedding off?” Rosie said. “He’s marrying your niece, not you.”

“You marry a Crane, you’re marrying into the family. And besides, I was paying. Lia wouldn’t be stupid enough to throw everything she’s got away. If I said the wedding was off, it would have been off. But the point’s moot. He got up, shook it off. Looked like he was cursing under his breath. So, he walks down the road a bit, to some convenience store. See him answer the phone just before he goes in. He doesn’t call someone, they’re calling him. He answers, talks to them, then he goes in the store for a bit.”

I nodded. “Then?”

“You know about this?”

“Yep. But keep going.”

Felix nodded. “See if there’s any holes in my story? There ain’t. But whatever, I hired you to do a job and you’re doing it. I’m not complaining. Chase was waiting around for something, and of course, I figured it had to do with that phone call. Sure enough, twenty, thirty, minutes later, some chick pulls up in some heap of junk. I think, ‘Oh, hello, who’re you? You this dancer broad? What’re ya doing, Chase?’ So. We keep following.”

“How long did they drive for?”

“Must have been twenty or thirty minutes. But the chick was driving like an idiot. She’d be driving, then suddenly she’d slow down, and then she’d pull over for a moment, then she’d go again. There were discussions going on in that car. Negotiations, arguments. I ran the plate while we were following them.”

“You ran the plate?” I asked. “How’d you do that?”

Felix smirked. “I got friends, ya know? You don’t come up the way I did without making a few friends on the force.”

“And you called them at two in the morning?”

Felix grinned. “Did I say friends? Maybe I mean people who owe me a favor or two. People who are only too happy to give me a hand if I give them a call in the night. So, this car, you know who it belongs to, right? It’s this chick, Jasmine. Chase’s ex-girlfriend.”

“What’d you think about that?” Rosie asked.

“What’d I think? I was mad! Running around with some dancing girl, having some fun, yeah, whatever. But you start messing around with your ex, going to see them at two in the morning? That’s another story. That’s got trouble written all over it. I was not happy, let me tell you. Not happy at all.”

“I don’t think he’s been seeing her,” I told him. “She just called at the right moment.”

“Whatever. You don’t answer when an ex calls. It’s not what you do.”

“You heard about Chase and a dancing girl—was this Delux Diamond?” Rosie asked.

Felix nodded. “Yeah, that’s the broad.”

“Did you hear about any others?” I asked.

Felix looked puzzled for a moment. “Others? Like, another one of those dancing floozies?” We nodded, he shook his head. “Nah. I only heard about the one. Look, if he keeps it quiet, then no one can complain, right? I ain’t got a problem with that. But messing around with ex-girlfriends, that’s unacceptable behavior.”

“What happened next?”

“I followed them around, and I don’t know what happened, but she kicked him out. Left him by the side of the road. It was getting late, then, and I wanted to call it a night. So I offered him a ride.”

“And you drove him back to the hotel.”

“Yep.”

“Did you hit him?” Rosie asked.

Felix tried to cover up a smile then burst out laughing. When he’d stopped he leered at Rosie again. “How’d ya know that?”

“The camera you were on had sound,” Rosie said. “A lot of them do nowadays.”

“Is that a fact? Yeah. Like I said, I didn’t want him fooling around with his ex-girlfriend. So I gave him a little wake-up slap. Let him know that it wasn’t okay.”

“A slap,” I repeated.

“A slap. A punch.” Felix grinned again. “Had to make sure that nose of his actually was broken. Brandon had done a number on it, and I just made sure the job was complete. Give him a little reminder not to mess around. He apologized, I dropped him at the hotel. And that’s where you come in—you’re supposed to be finding out what happened to him there.”

“Yeah, well, we’ve been following him all night. You could have saved us a lot of time.”

“If I told you all that you would have looked badly on me and Chase, I can tell. You modern broads.”

“When we’re working on a case, we work on a case. Our feelings don’t come into it.” Okay, they did sometimes, but I wouldn’t admit that to him. “You could have saved yourself time and money. Okay. We’ll pick up the thread from here.”

“Shouldn’t take you long now, right?”

“We’ll see,” I said. “I want to circle back around to Brandon. He got Chase very drunk and beat him up. Do you really think it was due to a rivalry? Due to work?”

“Yep. When I was coming up, that’s how we’d do it. You should have seen what I did to Mickey Malone!”

“What’d you do to Mickey Malone?” Rosie asked.

Felix didn’t answer.

“When you got to the Tremonte, you saw Chase go inside?” I asked.

“Yeah. We pulled up by the door. I gave him a little kick as he was getting out, encouraged him to behave. I put ten bucks in his hand, to give to the doorman. Watched him hand it over and go back in. Don’t know what happened to him after. That’s your job.”

Yeah, as he kept reminding us. After having wasted a huge amount of our time following Chase around all night.

“You’re down two top guys,” Rosie said. “So how’s business?”

Felix didn’t look happy at that question. “Annoying, that’s how it is. I’m getting my hands dirty again, doing their jobs for them. I know Brandon ain’t coming back now that he’s coyote food, so you better get Chase back here, fast. Do whatever you have to do.”

“We’re working on it,” I said. “Are there any other key pieces of information you’ve neglected to share with us?”

“Nope.”

“You didn’t have brunch with him the next day?” Rosie asked, brows arched as she stood.

Felix smiled coldly. “No. And enough of the smart questions. You know what you need to do now. Get back to it.”

What a delight of a client he was.

“Oh,” he said before we left. “Best you don’t mention the parts about Jasmine and me to Lia. As far as she’s concerned, he got a taxi back to the hotel after having a little scuffle with Brandon, okay?”

“Yeah,” I said over my shoulder, unconvincingly. I wasn’t about to try and weave a web of lies to Lia about her missing fiancé. But if she didn’t ask, I wasn’t going to rush to tell her either.

Rosie and I left Felix’s office in a low mood. I knew the security footage was going to back him up.

Chase had returned to the hotel that night, and we’d wasted all that effort following him across the city, recreating his night.

Worse than that, the man who I thought had killed him didn’t seem in the slightest bit worried about being caught. He was irritatingly smug, though with a sinister veneer on top.

This case was turning into a mess.

The high from the night before—good food, great company, and some nice sleuthing—was ruined.

“What now, boss?” Rosie asked when we were back outside and on the way to the car.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I really don’t know.”

It was frustrating. When you think you’ve cracked a case, when you think you’ve finally figured it out—only to have your suspicions thrown back in your face with a smirk.

Sometimes I hated this job. Everything had been adding up. While I didn’t have the exact motive down, there could have been half-a-dozen reasons Felix wanted to get rid of Chase.

And we’d seen him getting into his car! At that time of the night!

“Gah!”

Rosie gripped my arm. “Are you okay?”

I took a deep breath in. Slowly breathed it out. Another. Then, I froze.

“Boss? You stopped breathing…”

“Shh. I’m thinking.”

Rosie looked worried as she stared at me. I started to breathe again.

I was realizing something—something we’d just learned inside Sabertooth. Sometimes things are right in front of you and you just don’t see them.

We had a lead, and I had a feeling it was the kind of lead that was going to take us right on over to Brandon’s killer, and reveal what happened to Chase.

A smile spread across my lips.

“I’ve got an idea…”

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

W

e did our due diligence at the Tremonte, finding the security cameras that recorded the main door to the lobby. At that time of the night, there was a surprising amount of traffic through the main doors, mostly with people arriving after a night out on the town.

As Felix had told us, Chase exited his vehicle and stumbled toward the door where he handed a ten-dollar bill over to the doorman.

Rosie checked the timings.

“That’s about right, boss, from East Flamingo to the Tremonte at that time of night. They didn’t take any major detours.”

“Okay, good. Now let’s see if we can follow him.”

With the help of the security guard, Miller, we followed Chase on several different cameras. We got him going through the main door, and then crossing the lobby to the elevator banks. From two different angles, we saw him waiting for an elevator, slowly swaying, with one hand clutched to his nose at all times.

Next, we switched to an elevator cam, and Chase leaned into the corner, one hand on a rail, the other still on his face. When it reached his floor, he stumbled out.

“And that’s where we lose him,” Miller said.

We did a time check.

“Three thirty-three, he disappears,” Rosie said. “We got anything happening around that time on our timeline?”

“Delux Diamond and her friends left hours earlier. I suspect the Boys were passed out. They didn’t go out that night, and they’d been partying hard from what we heard. They were probably unconscious.”

“So Chase might even have gone into his room,” Rosie said. “The others might not have been awake, or if they were, they may not have been lucid enough to notice him.”

“Yep,” I said. “Okay, thanks, Miller.”

“What now, boss?” Rosie asked.

“Now we going shopping,” I told her with a grin.

“Ooh, what are we shopping for?” Rosie asked. “Let me guess. Security cameras? No. Cat toys for Jasmine’s cat and Snowflake! No. Food, is it food? No, it’s not that. Hmm. Are we going camping again?”

“Definitely not.”

She smacked her head.

“I know what it is! I should have thought of it first!”

She told me, and sure enough, she was right.

But she hadn’t thought of it first.

And I was glad she hadn’t, because if she had, we wouldn’t need me, would we?

I was beginning to realize that, smart as she was, Rosie and I thought very differently. That was good, as it meant we complemented each other.

She’d never think the way I do about cases.

And I wouldn’t think the way she did.

It made us the perfect team.

And now it was time for the perfect team to go shopping.

L

ike most of the grander resorts in Las Vegas, The Tremonte was well-equipped with a variety of high-end boutiques and other stores. We were greeted by a polite and eager young woman called Dominique Lefebvre the moment we entered Elysian Reverie for our shopping expedition. She was wearing a designer black dress set off by a pair of sparkling earrings with matching necklace that looked like they should cost more than the annual income of a shop assistant. Her hair was tied in a neat, glossy ponytail thicker than a horse’s mane, and even her skin sparkled. Her foundation probably had crystals and diamonds in it.

Despite looking around a thousand times more elegant than Rosie and I combined, she wasn’t snooty, and greeted us with a friendly smile and eagerly asked how she could assist us.

“I’m looking for something youthful,” I said.

“And sweet,” Rosie added.

“But elegant,” I said. “Not saccharine.”

“That’s right. Sweet, but not like cheap candy. More like a classy dessert.”

“But also with the air of a spoiled brat to it,” I finished.

Dominique looked at us slightly bemused, wondering if we were done with our descriptions. We weren’t. I didn’t think we’d quite got our message across yet.

“I’m thinking of a field of wildflowers on a summer’s day,” I said.

“But coated in butter,” Rosie added.

“Or a high-end olive oil,” I added, thinking of our recent meal.

“With a hint of an elite private girl’s school,” Rosie said. “But playing hooky.”

“Or maybe Spring Break,” I said thoughtfully.

Dominique held up her palm to stop us. We’d given her enough to work with.

“I think I know just what you mean.”

That was a surprise because I didn’t.

Elysian Reverie was a perfume store that carried a wide range of designer fragrances. The problem was, we didn’t know exactly what fragrance it was we were after, but we were doing our best to describe it.

“Here, try this,” said the attendant. The perfume she was offering us was called Good Girl, which seemed like a bad name if what I had in mind was correct. She sprayed it onto a test strip and offered it to us to sniff. “It reminds me of Spring in Paris.”

“Do you often spring in Paris?” Rosie asked curiously.

I knew people used summer as a verb. Winter, too. But I’d never seen anyone try it with Spring. I wasn’t sure if I approved.

“I do like to Spring in Paris, yes, but I can’t always get away.” She sighed at how tough life could be. “I falled in München last year, it was fabulous.”

“Oktoberfest?” Rosie said, like she was a regular attendee.

“Yes.” Dominique leaned in conspiratorially. “Septemberfest, too.”

“Oh, is that a thing?” I asked.

“It depends who you know,” she said enigmatically.

“I don’t think this is the right perfume. What do you think, Rosie?”

“No. This one’s too cupcakey. I’m thinking…” Rosie tapped her chin in thought. “Hmm, have you got something that smells like you’ve just been handed a bouquet of flowers, in a seaside town, on an early summer’s day? But the flowers, they’re not roses or violets, they’re very pale, perhaps a light pink? Cherry-blossom colored? Something like that?” Rosie asked. She scrunched her face a moment and added, “With just a touch of citrus? Like perhaps I have a glass of lemonade in hand, but it’s not too close to my face, it’s only just within the olfactory scent-wafting horizon?”

Our attendant nodded knowledgeably. “Yes, I think I’ve got something just like that.”

Dominique sure was good at her job, I thought.

We walked back across the shiny white marble floor of the shop to the Gucci perfumes section. She took a bottle of Bloom off the shelf. The name was certainly promising.

With a fresh test strip, we had another sniff.

“Hmm,” I said.

“I like it,” Rosie said. “But I don’t think this is it.”

“No,” I agreed. “This is a bit too grown-up. We want sophisticated, but young sophisticated.”

“What else do you remember?” asked our assistant. “This is fun.”

“I think it was a bit more—” She rose on her toes, lifting her palms from her waist above her head, “—uplifting,” Rosie said. “Like, imagine you’ve had a really, really, good morning, and now you’re walking from your car to a restaurant for lunch. You’re walking down a path toward the restaurant door, there are flower beds on either side, and you know you’re about to have an absolutely delicious meal. You’ve got a real spring in your step, a buzz of excitement.”

“Exactly,” I agreed, “but with just a hint of static electricity in the air.”

“And maybe you’re holding a cup of herbal tea,” Rosie added.

“Being careful not to spill it?” said Dominique, closing her eyes to imagine the scene with precision.

“Precisely!” Rosie said. “And you’re wearing a sundress, a really light one.”

“Right, and you’ve got a flower tucked behind your ear,” I said.

“Yes. A white one,” Rosie said. She frowned. “A daisy! That’s what it is.”

“Aha!” said Dominique. She opened her eyes wide again with a new destination in mind.

We followed her back across the shop to the Marc Jacobs section. She took a perfume from the display that was labeled, encouragingly, Daisy. She sprayed another test card for us.

I breathed in deeply.

So did Rosie.

I breathed in again.

Our eyes lit up.

“This is it!” we both said.

“It’s going to smell gorgeous on both of you,” said the attendant.

I wrinkled my nose.

“Oh, no,” I said, shaking my head. “It’s too girly for me.”

“I like something a bit tougher, a bit more mature,” Rosie said. “We just wanted to know what it was.”

The attendant looked a little crestfallen.

“But we’ll take a bottle,” I said when I saw her face. And, I decided, I would put it on Felix’s tab. It was totally a legitimate expense considering the run-around he’d given us.

“You should give it to Nanna,” Rosie said.

“Oh, that’s a good idea.”

“It’s too youthful for you, but you want to give it to your grandmother…?” Dominique asked as she rang it up.

“Exactly,” I confirmed.

It made total sense.

F

or the purposes of our investigation, we did need to use some of the perfume. I was sure Nanna either wouldn’t notice, or she would understand.

Rosie and I both gave ourselves a nice dose of it and then we headed for our next destination: to see Brandon’s widow.

Toni opened the door looking a little tired, but not distraught. She invited us in, but as she did so, she paused and gave us both a second look.

In the kitchen, we sat across from her after she poured us coffee. She kept giving us slightly strange glances.

“Any news from the police?” I asked her.

“Nothing too promising, yet. The detective I spoke to was very serious though.”

“Grumpy serious?”

Toni smiled and nodded. Good old Elwood.

“Toni, I can’t help but notice you’ve been giving us slightly strange, or at least curious, looks. Could you tell us why that is?”

Toni hesitated before she answered. “It’s… well. It’s your perfume.”

Perfect. Just what I was hoping for.

“Go on.”

“The first time you came here, you interrupted an argument between Brandon and me. He smelled of a woman’s perfume, and I found a long hair on his jacket as well. He said it was from a client, but I had my doubts. But that perfume… it’s the same one you two are wearing.”

“I was hoping you would say that,” I told her. “We just bought it. Don’t worry, we weren’t wearing it the day we first met you.”

“I don’t understand,” Toni said, a little sadly.

“I’m sorry to say that I think you were right to suspect Brandon of having an affair,” I told her. “We put on this perfume to see if it sparked anything. Our sense of smell is a very powerful form of recall, and in this case, it has told us exactly what we needed to know.”

“Who is she? Is it anyone I know?”

“Possibly,” I told her. “But I’d rather not say any more just yet. We’re at a sensitive stage of our investigation. We’re closing in on Chase—and the killer of your husband. Confirming this perfume has been a great help.”

Rosie and I finished our cups of coffee and stood.

“That’s it?” Toni said.

“That’s it.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

E

mily met us for lunch and we sat across from each other over club sandwiches, Rosie by my side.

“What’s the story with the Brandon Silvio investigation?” I asked Em.

“If I told you, Elwood would want me to kill you.” Emily snagged a couple of chips off her plate, chewed them, and swallowed them. “But he’s not, so, ask away!”

I grinned at her. It was good having a reliable friend on the force. I was always careful not to push it—we were friends foremost, and I wouldn’t ever want to put that at risk over a dead body that happened to be tangentially related to our case. I knew when to stop pushing and digging, and Em knew when to stop answering, but we could rely on each other to help out in cases where it was the pragmatic thing to do. So, we maintained both a good friendship and a healthy working relationship.

“I guess I’m just curious what you’re digging into with him.”

Em nodded. “Yep. I’ll tell you. But let me guess: you’re now certain it’s connected to your missing man? And you’ve got something that might help me?”

“Yeah. I mean, they had to be connected, didn’t they? Two guys working together and one goes missing and one gets whacked. Coincidences happen, but not this big.”

“Right. So, we were digging into his work. Sabertooth is quite the organization. Crane worked for a bunch of outfits back in the day, none of which still exist. They either got dissolved or disappeared when the owners bit it or got locked up. But he’s a survivor. He’s been kicking around since Vegas was a much less savory place than it is today. Not much of a record on him, but he’d been investigated more times than I cared to look into. Back when he was young, he was suspected in a whole slew of crimes—intimidation, kidnapping, assaults. All that good stuff.”

“Yeah he’s a real charmer,” I said. “So what do you think? Some of his old ‘business dealings’ are coming back to bite him on the Brandon?”

“That’s what Elwood thinks. And it makes sense.”

“But…”

Emily shrugged. “Elwood’s old school as well. Like Crane. I get the impression that Elwood is hoping it is some old Vegas action, something like the stories he heard when he joined the force. Rival companies acting like mobsters, whacking each other’s employees in some bitter grudge.”

“But you don’t think so?” Rosie asked.

“Not really. There aren’t many people who operate like that in Vegas anymore. Maybe the Lindseys, but they’re keeping a low profile now thanks to you. There are some small timers, like the Pike, and a few others. But this doesn’t smell that kind of fishy. I think it has to be more personal.”

I chewed thoughtfully on another mouthful of the excellent club sandwich. As well as the classic ingredients, it had an avocado and chili twist to give it a fatty kick that brought out the flavors of the bacon and chicken. You couldn’t go wrong with a good club sandwich.

“So what’ve you got, Tiff?”

“We think Brandon was having an affair.”

Emily slowly nodded. “Yeah. We interviewed his wife and she said she suspected as much, but she couldn’t give us a name. So what do you think—jealous husband got him? But then how does that connect to your missing guy?”

“Yeah, that’s the problem,” I said. “And maybe not a jealous husband. Maybe a different kind of relative.”

Emily’s brow furrowed in thought. I nudged Rosie to continue because I wanted to eat more sandwich more than I wanted to talk.

“We think Brandon was having an affair with Felix’s daughter.”

Emily’s eyebrows shot up.

“His daughter?” Emily shook her head. “How old is she? I saw her when we went by their office. She was a little brat.”

“She’s in her twenties,” Rosie said with a shrug. “She’s older than she acts. She’s spoiled, she’s used to getting her own way… if she decided she wanted Brandon…”

Emily bit her lip, shaking her head.

“Felix did not mention that,” she said.

“No,” Rosie said, “I don’t suppose he would.”

“And you’re certain of this?” Emily asked.

“Nope,” I said, “but it’s a good bet. The first time we met Toni and Brandon, he smelled of perfume. It’s the perfume Misty wears. He had blonde hair on his shoulder. She has blonde hair.”

“And, when we saw her in his office this morning, she’d been crying,” Rosie added.

I’d forgotten about that! I remembered she had mascara streaks down her cheeks, but I figured it was an act to squeeze more money out of Felix, crying and sobbing and exhibiting all the symptoms of the kind of distress that could only be alleviated by an injection of cold, soothing, cash.

“Huh,” Emily said. “Then what happened to your missing man?”

“I’m still not sure about that,” I said. “And we’re not sure what exactly happened to Brandon, either. This thing’s complicated. But on your end, you’ve not found any serious business rivalries with shady people who might have kidnapped Chase. Or shot Brandon. And if they were there, you would have found signs of them, at least.”

“I think so. But Elwood’s still looking for that connection. He’s gone to have a not-so-gentle word with the Pike right now, trying to scare something out of him.”

“But we don’t think that’s going to turn up much. Okay, thanks Em, that’s been useful. It’s helped narrow down the possibilities.”

“You’ve been more useful,” Emily said with a little laugh. “Elwood’s going to be so disappointed if it’s some kind of lover’s tiff instead of some mob action.”

“He’ll get over it. Hey, give us a few hours to chase down Misty though, will you?”

“Yeah, I won’t mention it to Elwood until I see him again. Won’t be until this afternoon.” Emily examined my face. “Hey, have you figured it out? The connection? You’ve got a look, Tiff.”

I shrugged. Did my best enigmatic smile. “Maybe.”

Rosie’s head whipped around to stare at me. “That’s not fair!”

I grinned at her. “We’ve all got access to the same information…”

Rosie rapped her head with the knuckles of a fist. “Think better, brain!”

“Did it work?” Emily asked Rosie.

“No,” Rosie said with a sigh. She picked up her phone and waved it in front of me. “I know where Misty is, though!”

“Perfect.”

M

isty was sitting at an outside tiki bar looking sad with a pair of friends who looked like they could be models, but were probably ‘influencers’. The three of them looked like an ad promoting the glamor of day drinking, with their colorful cocktails, pretty dresses, and designer sunglasses.

The three girls were sitting at a bamboo table, and they didn’t clap their hands, squeal, and say ‘Yay!’ when we arrived to join them.

“Hi, Misty,” I said. “We work for your dad. We need to talk to you.”

Misty had a sad puppy dog expression on her face, her lips turned down in a frowny pout.

One of the friends, a girl who looked even younger than Misty—but was old enough to drink so it must have just been good genes—put a hand on my wrist. “Misty is mourning. She’s suffered a terrible loss. Can’t you come back another time?”

The other friend put a hand on my other wrist. “She’s so sensitive.”

Misty faked a sniff and nodded in agreement with her friends.

“Yeah?” I said. “That’s exactly what we want to talk to you about.” I gave the other two girls a look. “You two might want to take your glasses and sit up at the bar for a few minutes.”

Misty briefly considered arguing, but my tone was heavy enough that she realized it would be futile. And she didn’t want to have this conversation in front of her friends. After short consideration, she nodded to her friends. “Go,” she told them. “This won’t take long.”

When it was just the three of us, I asked Misty what she was mourning.

“I lost someone,” she said. “Someone very dear to—” she pressed a hand to her chest “—my heart.”

“A boyfriend,” I said.

Misty sniffed and nodded again.

“Brandon Silvio.”

Misty’s eyebrows shot up, she squealed, and a hand slapped across her mouth.

“That’s a ‘yes’, then,” Rosie said.

“How did you know?” Misty asked.

I leaned forward and took a small strand of her hair between my fingers. “This was found on Brandon’s collar.”

“There are a lot of blondes!”

“A lot of blondes who wear Marc Jacobs Daisy?”

“How do you know that?” Misty sounded almost distraught, as if the possibility of being caught out by her perfume was so surprising she could barely imagine it. “And there probably are.”

“Not ones who also know Brandon Silvio,” I said. “Tell us about your relationship with him,” I said.

She shook her head quickly and immediately. “I can’t!”

“You have to,” I said.

“Then, you’ve got to promise not to tell my dad, you’ve got to promise. He’ll kill me. He’ll literally kill me.”

“No, he won’t,” I said. “But okay, I won’t tell him. But we need to know everything.”

I had a feeling I wouldn’t be telling Felix—because he already knew.

“He was killed by the mob,” Misty said after another sniff.

“We’ll get to that in a moment,” I said. “Tell us about your relationship with him first. Then we can move on to the mob.”

“He said we had to keep it a secret from everyone,” Misty said. “Shouldn’t I honor that promise to him?”

“No,” I said bluntly.

“Oh.” Misty took a contemplative sip from her cocktail. “Okay, since you promised not to tell my dad.” Another sip. “It was so romantic. My dad had a barbecue a few months ago for his company employees, at our house. Everyone was there. They had to be—he said they’d be fired if they weren’t. I saw Brandon, and it was love at first sight. He was so mature, you know? Older, handsome, charming.” Misty sighed dreamily. “I decided then and there, I had to have him. He was going to be mine.”

“He was married,” I said. “You knew that, right?”

Misty shrugged. “No barrier can stop true love.”

Ugh.

“No?”

Misty shook her head. “No. And I was right. Daddy always said, you’ve got to take what you want in this life. If you want it, you take it. That’s what he says. So that’s what I did.”

“So you and he were seeing each other for, what, two months? Three months?”

Misty nodded. “Seven weeks. Until…” Misty shuddered. “The mob got him.”

“Which mob?” Rosie asked.

“The mob,” Misty said. “You know. Like, the Godfather.”

“Why do you think that?” I asked.

“Because he worked in the real estate business. Brandon told me how dangerous it was, and how intense the rivalries could be. He said sometimes companies kidnap each other’s employees! He said he was taking his life in his hands.”

Sounded to me like Brandon had been listening to too many of Felix’s stories from the old days.

“And did he tell you he was in danger recently?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Misty said. “He said he was in so much danger. It was terrible. We were going to run away together.”

“Run away?” I said, skeptically.

“Yes.” Misty had a clutch on the table, and she opened it up and reached inside. She opened an inner pocket, and then she withdrew a gold chain, from which hung a gold ring. “He got me this.”

I took the chain and ring from Misty. It had the weight of real gold, though I was no expert.

“Where were you going to run away to? How were you going to live?”

Misty smiled shyly. “I… I have a trust fund. I get access to it in six months. That’s when we were going to leave. We were going to travel the world, it was going to be so romantic.”

“And you were going to just live off your trust fund? Forever?”

Misty smiled and nodded again. “Brandon said that if we were careful, we could. And that anyway, we’d find some exciting business opportunities. We were going to have the best life together.” Misty sniffed again. “But the mob got him.”

Misty folded the chain reverentially and tucked it back inside her bag.

“I’m never going to forget him.”

“I don’t suppose he told you the names of any of these mobsters did he?” I asked her. Doing my due diligence again.

Misty nodded. “One of them was called the Pike.”

“Wait, really?”

Misty nodded. “I know, right? Sounds so scary!”

“Yeah,” I said. “So scary.”

“Thanks for your time, Misty.”

“Stay out of trouble,” Rosie advised as she stood.

“Stay out of trouble?” Misty smiled at Rosie. She almost looked cute for a second. “But then I wouldn’t be me.”

We left her to carry on day drinking with her friends.

We had a fish to visit.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

“W

hadayawant?” The Pike demanded when we joined him in his office in the back of one of his nightclubs.

As ever, he was delighted to see us. At least this time we’d arrived of our own accord instead of being kidnapped by his goons—sorry, associates.

“How’re you doing, fish man?” Rosie asked.

Once upon a time, the Pike had terrified Rosie. She owed him money and he squeezed her for everything she had, making her hit the casinos, counting cards until she was banned from just about every place you could play cards in the city. But now Rosie had her self-confidence back, and she wasn’t going to be pushed around by the likes of the Pike again. She was the one calling the shots.

“Just great, thanks for asking. Got the cops hassling me, now got you hassling me. And I didn’t even do anything!”

“This time,” I said.

The Pike gave us a half-smile. He liked that. The implication that most of the time he was doing ‘something’.

“Exactly. I should be left alone. So what do you want?”

“What did Elwood want?” I asked.

The Pike narrowed his beady eyes as he considered trying to squeeze me for something in return for an answer. Decided it wasn’t worth it.

“Some real estate guy got whacked. He wanted to know what I knew, so I told him—nothing! Don’t know anything about it. Nothing to do with me. That’s not how I operate.”

“Any more?”

The Pike smirked. “No comment, detective.”

“This guy, his name was Brandon Silvio,” I said. “His girlfriend says he knew you.”

“Nah.” The Pike shook his head. “Didn’t know the guy. Can’t help you.”

“Why’d he mention you then?” Rosie demanded.

The Pike held his palms out in front of his stomach, pointing in at himself. “Hey, I’m the man. People know who I am. Men want to be me, women want to be with me.”

Rosie and I both laughed loud and long enough for his confidence to be visibly shaken.

“Hey!” he said, offended. “Not women like you. You’re not my type.”

“Definitely not,” I agreed. “So you’re saying you didn’t know Brandon Silvio at all?”

“Nope. Honestly, never even heard of the guy until Elwood came in wheezing and moaning and complaining about him. Elwood says he has to liaise with Highway Patrol because his body was found out of town, and that’s no fun for him. I think he wants to shoot this Brandon guy again for all the hassle he’s causing him.”

“You’re probably not wrong. What about Chase Mallory. Do you know him?”

“Nope. Never heard of him.”

“Felix Crane?”

“Felix? Yeah, I know Felix, from back in the day. He’s still alive, huh?”

“Brandon and Chase work for him. Well, worked in the case of Brandon. Chase is missing.”

“Think he’s going to turn up alive?”

“No,” I said, honestly.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to work for Felix either.”

“You know Misty Crane? Or Lia Crane?” Rosie asked.

“Naw. Got a picture?”

“Why?” I asked while Rosie was pulling out her phone.

The Pike smiled. “See if I wanna get to know them.”

Rosie stuffed her phone back away.

“No.”

“Anything else I can do for you ladies?”

“No, thanks. It’s been a real pleasure as always.”

The Pike got a couple of his goons to walk us back to our car. He acted like it was a mark of respect, but I’m pretty sure it was supposed to be intimidation. Didn’t work. The goons wished us well in the ominous way that people like them do and we hit the road.

“What next, boss?”

“Movie marathon…?” I suggested. “Clint Eastwood.”

Rosie checked the time. It was coming up for evening.

Then she checked my head.

“You okay, boss?”

I grinned at her and told her I was just peachy.

Rosie put on a deep voice.

“You went ahead and made my day.”

I snickered. “That’s not how the line goes.”

“I know, but it didn’t make sense if I said it in the right tense.”

“Try it anyway,” I suggested. “We can do this.”

Rosie sucked in a breath and did her best gravelly voice again as she said, “Go ahead, make my day!

So I did: “Want to do a Clint Eastwood movie marathon?”

“YES!” she said, not sounding very much like Clint Eastwood at all.

T

he next morning, slightly bleary-eyed, Rosie and I got back to work. I had been unanimously declared a genius by Rosie, Jan, Stone, and Snowflake. (Actually, Snowflake gave me sullen stares, but I interpreted them to be the highest form of compliment.)

“What’s the plan, boss?” Rosie asked as my tires squealed as we peeled out onto the street. I needed to get Stone to look at them.

“I think it’s time we uncovered the whereabouts of Chase, Rosie.”

“Oh, good idea! We should have thought about that before.”

I turned to glance at her. She was grinning widely at me. We were hilarious.

“And we should probably put this whole thing together. Figure out what happened with Brandon. What’s been going on. Tie it all up, put a bow on top, squeeze out some confessions, and then hand it over to the police to do the boring bit.”

“Elwood will love that.”

“Oh yeah. He’ll love it so much. Okay, first stop, breakfast. Second stop, the Tremonte.”

When we were fueled up and fizzing with energy—and caffeine—we headed back into the Tremonte security office. Miller greeted us and led us back to our regular security desk.

“What are we working on today?” Miller said as we followed him across the security center.

“I want to look at some blank tapes,” I said enigmatically.

“Can’t do that,” Miller said. “It’s all digital now.” He pointed his thumb down. “In the cloud. Which is our server farm, in the IT department, in the basement.”

“Blank video, then,” I said. “I want you to pull up the feed from those cameras that were sprayed over with the black paint. The ones on the floor that Chase Mallory’s bachelor party suite was on.”

“Okay…”

I gave him the precise time that we saw Chase entering the elevator during our last security viewing session. Miller pulled up the video feed, and, sure enough, it was completely black.

“Nothing,” Miller said.

“Really?” I said. “There may be nothing on the screen, but what about the audio feed?”

Miller’s eyebrows lifted slightly and he nodded. He adjusted the volume.

“Good call,” he said.

Now we knew the time we were looking for, even without the video, we might be able to find something.

Miller had the volume turned up loud enough that we could hear a continuous background hiss. Then there was a ding, and the sounds of an elevator door opening.

Shuffling, stumbling footsteps.

Then, “Oh no you don’t.”

Rosie grabbed my arm, eyes wide.

“Huh?” Chase said. “What’re you—Whoah! Whoah!”

“Nice and easy. That way.”

“But—” There was the sound of a disturbance, then, “Ow!”

“I think Chase just got pistol-whipped,” Rosie said.

“Yeah,” I said, my tone somber. “He did.”

“Where’re we—Ow!”

“Shut it. No talking.”

The voices were further away now. We heard the sounds of the wide, flat handle on the fire door at the end of the hallway being pushed. The next time we heard a voice it was echoey, distant.

“Not that way!”

Then the fire door shut, and there was silence.

“Wow,” Rosie said. “I should have thought of that before.”

I shook my head. “It wouldn’t have helped—not unless you wanted to listen to hours and hours of footage with no accompanying video. We only just found out that Chase came back to the hotel. And that whole interaction lasted, what, twenty-five seconds? It would have been incredibly easy to miss. And it wouldn’t have told us much. We needed to know what we know now for it to make sense.”

“That makes sense?” Miller asked. “You know where our missing guest is?”

“I think I might do,” I said.

I got out my phone, put in a call to Jack Weber. We were going to need his assistance.

Things were coming together, fast.

I

met Emily in the Atrium Café, a beautiful, airy, establishment near the Tremonte’s lobby, with high ceilings filled with bright skylights that filled the dining area with bright, filtered daylight.

“How’d it go?” I asked her over coffee and a selection of mouthwatering mini-cupcakes served on a three-tiered stand.

“You were right about Crane’s daughter. We went to see her. Misty told us the Pike probably killed Brandon. So we went to see him.”

“Oh yeah? We paid him a visit, too. How’d yours go?”

Emily took a sip of coffee, a smile playing on her lips. “Uh, he’s not happy.”

I shrugged. “He rarely is.”

“Yeah, well, Elwood embarrassed him in front of his goons. He’s pretty mad right now. I don’t think he’s going to be providing the police with any assistance again any time soon.”

“No change there, then.”

“Nope, guess not. You’ve made progress?”

“Yep,” I said. “How would you and Elwood like to spend the early evening in the security office?”

Emily lifted her eyebrows and took on a speculative look. “I could run it past him. I predict grouchiness and a demand to know why the heck he should do that. So if you want to help me get ahead on the answer to that question…”

“Because he’ll get live video footage explaining what happened to Chase and who killed Brandon…?” I offered temptingly.

“Oh. He might go for it. I don’t suppose you just want to hand over everything you’ve got instead, and let us make the takedown?”

I grinned at her. “Never!”

Emily laughed. “Didn’t think so. Never change, Tiff.”

“Wasn’t planning on it. Anyway, there’s a chance I might be horribly wrong and the whole thing will turn out to be an embarrassment. You offer that possibility to Elwood, and he’ll probably bring popcorn.”

“He just might do that. So you’ve got a plan?”

“I do.”

I laid it out for her, and she was, of course, impressed.

Or, because she’s my friend, she did a heck of a job pretending to be.

But no, I’m sure it was the former.

“One other thing,” Em said to me before I left. “Make of it what you will.”

I sat back down. “What is it?”

“Something arrived in the mail, at Metro headquarters. Padded envelope. Addressed to homicide.”

“Not a… part… I hope?” I meant a body part. Such things had been known to happen, though luckily not in any cases I’d ever dealt with.

“No, nothing biological. It was a gun, actually. There was a note with it, and it said that the package was from a ‘concerned person’ who saw it thrown out of a car window into a storm drain. Then the car sped off. Supposedly. Apparently the letter-writer fished it back out. The concerned citizen gave us a plate number for the car. It matched someone we know.” Emily leaned toward me, her eyes searching me for my thoughts. “And, the firearm was registered.”

“Yeah?”

Emily nodded. “Yep. The license plate belonged to a car owned by Felix Crane. A sedan he has driven by a chauffeur.”

“Black Benz?”

“Yep, that’s the one.”

“And the gun?”

“That was his, too.”

“Huh,” I said. “I don’t suppose ballistics have had a chance to check whether it was the weapon used on Brandon yet? Even if it was rushed through…”

Emily shook her head. “You’re right, they wouldn’t have processed it yet. But it didn’t need processing. Brandon was shot with a point four-four. This was a semi three-five-seven. Couldn’t have been used on him.”

I nodded.

“But it could have been used in another crime.”

“Yeah,” Emily said. “We’re just waiting for a matching body to show up.”

Grim-faced, I nodded. We both knew whose body might have the matching bullets.

“So,” I said. “Either you guys got lucky. Or someone is trying to frame Felix.”

“That’s what we figure. And Elwood says there’s no such thing as a lucky homicide cop. Only a hardworking one. I’m not sure he believes they exist, either, apart from himself of course.”

“Of course. What do you think, Em?”

“I think that being handed a key piece of evidence just like that would be a heck of a break.” Emily tapped her fingers on her crumb-covered china plate. “But, unlike Elwood, I do believe that good things can happen.”

“Sometimes.”

“Yeah. Sometimes.”

“You haven’t moved on Felix.”

“Not yet. We’re going to wait to see if any ballistics reports match the gun. Could be it was used in something years ago, even. Elwood doesn’t want to bring Felix in to ask about the gun until we’ve got something else as well. Either that, or we’re out of options. One piece of circumstantial evidence, not yet linked to any crime, isn’t worth jack without something more to back it up.”

I stood up. “Stay in touch. I’ll see you tonight.”

With some additional information to ponder, I got back to it.

I had a lot of work to do.

R

osie and I followed our intuition and found ourselves standing over a rolled-up tarp.

Gently, we tugged at the corner, unrolled it slightly, until just enough of the contents were visible.

“Oh, darn it,” Rosie said with a disappointed sigh.

It was what we expected.

But sometimes it really doesn’t feel good to be right.

Chase Mallory was dead. And he’d been killed by one of our suspects.

“We’re not calling it in?” Rosie asked after we’d pushed the tarp back closed.

“We totally are,” I said. “In a few hours. Anyway, I just met Emily, I’m sure she doesn’t want me to bother her again just yet.”

“And we do want to give them the case fully solved,” Rosie added.

“Yep.”

It’s pretty much what I had promised Emily. Rushing to report the body wouldn’t do anything to help, and would only make it harder to squeeze out confessions. And this was the kind of case that was going to need a confession because the evidence was going to be slim.

So, we were going to do this my way.

A

t Sabertooth, I met Lia just outside the main doors on the bench. I put a hand on her shoulder.

“Lia,” I said, “I think I know what happened to Chase, and I’m afraid it’s not good news.”

Lia stared at me, biting her lip, slowly nodding. “I didn’t think it would be,” she said, finally. She’d come to terms with the fact that her fiancé wasn’t coming back a while before. She hadn’t been looking for Chase for some time now. It was answers she was looking for.

“I’d like your help. We’ve just about uncovered what happened, but we need to gather a few more strings and give them a tug. Would you be able to join us later?”

She slowly nodded. “Yeah.”

I headed indoors, knocked on Felix’s office, and let myself in.

“Chase isn’t coming back,” I told him, “and I think I figured out what happened to him. I need your help. We’re having a meeting later that’s going to involve Chase’s ex-girlfriend and another former acquaintance of his. I need someone who knows the old-school Las Vegas ways present at the meet to put the fear of heck into them. It’ll squeeze out a confession, and that’s the only way they’re going to be brought down.”

Felix stared at me hard. “Do I need to bring anything?”

He lifted his eyebrows slightly. He was asking if he needed to be packing.

I shook my head. “No. It’s your attitude we need, your old-fashioned menacing presence. Not weaponry. If it was weaponry we needed, we wouldn’t need you. Bring your yelling voice.”

Felix grinned coldly. “Oh, I can bring that. If someone has messed with my top boy I’m going to enjoy tearing them apart.”

“Verbally,” I tried to clarify.

Felix scowled. “Where and when?”

I gave him the details, and he was on board.

As I was leaving, I got a call from Rosie.

“Jan and Stone are getting into position,” she said. “They’ve set up the cameras and connected their video and audio feeds to the Tremonte security system. Everything’s going to be recorded and beamed down to the office for Elwood.”

“Perfect,” I told her.

I headed back to my car. I still had more people to recruit and plans to put in place.

But it was all coming together perfectly.

N

ext, it was over to Jasmine’s. She seemed delighted to see me.

“Can I bring Scratchy McMeow-meow-meow?” Jasmine asked me.

“No.”

“Can I bring Tyler?”

“Absolutely.”

“That’ll have to do.” She seemed equally happy with either option.

I headed back to the car.

It was a heck of a busy day.

And the fun hadn’t even started.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

I

rode the elevator up from the Tremonte lobby along with Felix, Lia, and a couple of guys from his office. He’d told them we were doing an on-site inspection of the development work they were soon to start—the new bar on the roof of the building. The bar that Jack had proudly told us about back when we started this case.

I could see the excitement in Felix’s eyes. Glinting, rat-like cunning lurked in there, and his nose was twitching from excitement. This felt like the old days to him. A dramatic takedown of the person who had taken his future son-in-law.

I could see a slight bulge in the jacket of his tailored suit. A gun, tucked inside. Either a new one, or another from perhaps a more extensive collection. The police certainly hadn’t returned the one they’d received. He didn’t even know they had it yet.

No, this was another gun. I could tell he was the kind of sicko who would be looking for an excuse to use, it too. A dramatic moment where he could credibly claim self-defense. Or at least, where it couldn’t be proven that it wasn’t self-defense. I trusted him about as far as I could throw him. But I had no right to disarm him.

Felix wasn’t the only one who was packing. I’d dug mine out from my underwear drawer, along with a fresh can of pepper spray. Both were secreted in my purse. And in concealed positions on the roof were Jan, Stone, and a couple of security people from the Tremonte’s team.

The elevator dinged as we reached the top floor. It was formerly a helipad and now it getting set up for construction. Final permission for the work was about to be approved, and equipment had already been moved into position for when the go-ahead was given.

We exited into a kind of vestibule that sometimes served as a waiting room if someone was early for their chopper, or waiting for a guest to arrive.

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, I’d been whisked out here and into a helicopter when Jack Weber took me on a date. We ate chocolate-covered strawberries as we watched the sunset and then the glitter of the city from hills far out of town. That was before Jack and Emily was a thing. Long, long before Stone and me was a thing. Jack and I weren’t a good fit, but he was still a good friend.

And there he was. Looking slick in his casual attire—dress pants and a button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up—Jack Weber stood just outside on the roof, waiting for our party.

“Mr. Crane,” Jack said, shaking Felix’s hand and welcoming him out onto the rooftop. “Let’s do a final inspection before construction begins.”

Felix nodded. “Permission should come through next Monday.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“The wheels have been greased.”

“And that, I don’t want to hear,” Jack said, chuckling lightly. I knew he meant it. He did things above board, by the book. That’s how he operated—he claimed it was because he thought it was what worked best, in the long run.

But I knew it was really because he was a thoroughly moral and upstanding person underneath his businessman facade. He had to play the game, he had to pretend to be a hard-nosed tough man at times, act like he was willing to do ‘whatever it takes’ to keep his business thriving. But really, he wouldn’t do ‘whatever’ if it clashed with his morals. He was a white knight in a world of much murkier characters.

Fortunately, for almost all of us there, his morals were very firmly in line with bringing down killers. It was only those with blood on their hands that were in trouble this evening.

Jasmine and Tyler were behind Jack. Felix pretended not to know either of them and simply blanked them. He was under the impression that he was going to wait for my signal, and then he would launch into his role as an old-school scary businessman and start breathing fire at them.

Lia, on spotting Jasmine, turned and arched her eyebrows at me. I squeezed her arm—trust me.

Then someone else stepped into view and Felix flinched.

“Misty?”

“Hi, Daddy!” Misty said, putting on a cutesy voice, sickly sweet. But underneath the honey veneer was an edge of cunning that she’d inherited from her father. She knew how to play Felix like a Juilliard alumni plays an instrument. “You’ll be very proud of me. I’m learning about business! And Mr. Weber said you’re helping him build the coolest bar in the city up here. I’m going to be such a regular.”

“No, you’re not. You’re going to college.”

Misty shook her head. Her overly-cutesy voice became just a little more serious. “Mr. Weber said I can join their young executive training program. I can learn, and start a career at the same time.”

Felix looked at Jack, who gave him a nod back.

“Misty tells me she has a great interest in the hospitality and entertainment industries. We’re always looking for eager young people who we can train up to join one of our management teams. If she’s interested in earning a degree at the same time, we’ll cover the tuition and she can take night classes.”

Felix scowled at Misty. “You’re serious? You’re not going to drop out after the first week?”

She shook her head, blonde locks flying this way and that. “Nuh-uh. I heard on TikTok that responsibility is a really useful trait. I’m going to try it.”

“I’ve been telling you that for years!”

Misty just smiled back at her father.

Felix glanced at me, and then gave a meaningful look toward Jasmine and Tyler. Was it time for him to begin his act, he wanted to know. Not that it would be an act. I quickly held up a finger, to tell him to wait.

“Now,” Jack said. “Confession time.” That got him some interested looks. “We’re not actually here for a site inspection.”

“Are we going to have cocktails instead?” Misty asked. “It’s definitely cocktail time.”

“No. Tiffany, Rosie, I believe you had something you wanted to say?”

I stretched my arms up above me and rolled out my shoulders. I needed to be limber for this.

“We’re here, at this precise location, not only because this is where a new bar was planning to be constructed. But for another, reason, too.” Felix narrowed his gaze at me when he heard was. “This isn’t just a construction site. It is, unfortunately, a crime scene.”

Misty, Jasmine, and Tyler gasped. Felix perked up, looking even more interested now.

“Crime scene?” Lia said in a small voice.

“Chase Mallory is dead,” I said. “And this is where he was murdered.” I pointed across the rooftop to where there was a messy heap of tarp. “He was killed over there.”

Jack suddenly looked at me with wide eyes—asking if there was really a dead body on his roof. I had kind of neglected to mention that to him during the planning of this little soirée. He’d understand, I was sure. We didn’t need the cops blundering in and messing this up. With their protocol and procedures and rulebooks, my plan wouldn’t have worked, even if they did have as much desire to catch the bad guys as me.

“You’ve got no security up here,” Felix said, nodding to himself. “Everything got cleared out for construction.”

“That’s right,” Jack said. “Until a few weeks ago it was, like the rest of the Tremonte estate, saturated with cameras. But as part of the prep work we’ve torn out most of the electrical systems up here. The whole rooftop level is going to be completely redone. We need a much more capable system put in for the bar and club.” Jack looked at me. “That’s why the killer thought this was a good location to carry out their crime, right?”

“Right,” I confirmed.

“So who was it?” Felix spat. I could see he had a hand ready to go, ready to reach into the inside of his jacket and grab his gun. Any excuse would do.

I turned to my partner and nodded to Rosie to carry on. I couldn’t keep all the fun to myself, Rosie had been integral to this investigation and deserved some of the glory.

“We spent a long time figuring this all out. Chase had a heck of a last night.”

“Went out with a bang,” Felix said, laughing. He’s the only one who was.

“Yeah, he was shot,” Rosie said. Then she fixed Felix with a hard stare. “With your gun.”

Felix’s eyes went wide, his mouth flapped open to protest. We didn’t give him a chance to.

“Quiet!” I yelled at him, surprised at the power of my own voice, before he could begin his protestations. “Let Rosie finish. You can say your piece later. I think you’ll be pleased.”

“I doubt it,” Felix said in a low voice.

Yeah, me too.

Misty placed a finger to her lips, “Shh, Daddy!”

“On that fateful, fatal, night, Tyler tried to kill Chase,” Rosie said.

We all looked at Tyler. He held up his arms. “Guilty as charged.”

“Unfortunately, his method of choice was alcohol,” Rosie said, “and Chase had a lot of practice at consuming that particular poison. At this point of the evening, Brandon, now deceased, also joined in. Jealous at Chase’s success and advancement in Sabertooth, he assisted Tyler in making him drink far, far too much. Then, he took him off the premises, and beat the tar out of him.”

“But I saved him!” Jasmine said, her voice filled with pride. Tyler put an arm over her shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

“You picked him up,” I said, “drove him around for a bit, then you scratched his face and kicked him out of your car.”

“It was just a lovers’ tiff,” she said. “We could have patched things up.”

“But it didn’t work out,” Rosie said. “At that point, Felix, who had been following him, picked Chase up, smacked him across the face, and broke his nose.”

Felix began to chuckle.

Lia stared at him in horror. Felix held up his palms. “Hey, he was cheating on you with some floozy and his ex.”

“He wasn’t cheating on her with Jasmine,” I said.

“He was!” Jasmine protested. “Not physically, but in our hearts, and that’s where it counts.”

“Nope,” I said.

“Whatever,” Felix said. “He was fooling around and about to marry my niece. I had to look after you, Lia.”

“By breaking his nose? Gee, thanks. That would have looked great in our wedding photos.”

Felix laughed again. “It’d sure make ’em memorable! I barely remember my first wedding. I bet if I had a broken nose, I would have remembered it better.”

“That’s so mean, Daddy,” Misty said, scolding her father. “You’re supposed to mellow in your old age.”

“Not me,” Felix said. “I’m getting meaner not softer.”

“What happened next?” Lia asked.

Rosie got back into it. “Chase came back to the hotel. He took the elevator back to his floor, but he didn’t make it into the room. He was met outside the elevator, and forced at gunpoint up here. That’s where he was shot.”

Misty slapped a hand over her mouth and, behind it, said something about how horrible that was.

Lia looked grim.

“Who did that to my baby?” Jasmine wailed.

“I told you earlier that Brandon was furious at Chase’s promotion, and that’s why he beat him up,” I said. “But there was more going on. And that beating? It was opportunistic. It was Brandon unleashing some of his rage. But other plans were afoot.”

“What plans?” Felix grouched.

“We heard from a taxi driver that Brandon and Chase had been talking. Chase had been mostly incoherent, but he’d been really winding Brandon up. Teasing him. Mocking him. And it involved a Clint Eastwood movie.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Felix groused.

“Oh yes it does,” Rosie said.

Rosie and I both turned to look at Felix’s daughter.

It does make sense,” I said, “If the movie is Play Misty for Me.”

Felix’s brow furrowed deeply.

“WHAT?!”

Misty clapped two hands on her cheeks. “Hey! My love life is nobody’s business!”

“What the heck?” Lia said, her eyes going between me and Misty, and back to me again.

“I’m afraid Chase was having an affair, Lia. With Misty.”

Misty stomped her foot. “That was a secret! No one was supposed to know about that!”

“Brandon found out,” I said. “And he was incensed. Even though he was married to Toni, he had become completely infatuated with Misty. When he found out that not only had Chase taken the job he wanted, but that he was also with the girl that he intended to leave his wife for…” I shook my head. “He lost it.”

“He stole Felix’s gun,” Rosie said, “well, one of them at least. And he used it to murder Chase. The murder on the rooftop was premeditated. He was involved in the construction project, he knew the security system had been removed, and during previous visits he had checked the location of other security cameras. He found out that Chase was holding his bachelor party here, and he plotted out which cameras he needed to disable.”

“Earlier in the evening, when he beat Chase up, that was opportunistic. But the murder, that was premeditated.”

“And that also explains why we saw him returning to his house at nearly six a.m., splashing whiskey on himself to make it look like he was out drinking all night.”

“He killed for me?” Misty said, her voice quaking. “That’s… that’s hardcore.”

“That’s what people in love do,” Jasmine said. “I’d have killed for Chase.”

“What about me?” Tyler asked her.

Jasmine smiled back at him, but didn’t answer in the affirmative. Instead, she said, “I got a tattoo!”

“The punk used my gun?” Felix said. “I wondered where that had gotten to.”

“The police have it now,” Rosie told him.

“How the heck did they get it?”

“Brandon posted it to him,” Rosie said. Felix stared at her, the outrage on his face plain.

But the outrage was nothing compared to what it became after Rosie finished what she was saying.

“Before you killed him.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

F

elix could move fast, I had to give him that.

The moment Rosie had finished speaking he’d lurched forward, grabbed Jasmine by the hair, and stuck a gun to her head.

With quick steps, Felix shuffled with Jasmine to the edge of the group, so that we were all in front of him. No one else dared move.

“You’re pulling my hair!” Jasmine said.

“What the heck’s going on?” Felix demanded, snarling and spitting the words. His eyes were locked on mine. “You said we were going to capture this joker for killing Chase. What’s this trash about me and Brandon?”

“Daddy, did you kill my boyfriend?” Misty demanded, staring at her father in shock.

“I didn’t do jack. But if someone did, it was probably because he was a traitorous piece of you know what. I offer him a chance at the big time, and what does he do, cheats on his wife chasing after my daughter? My daughter?!”

“Daddy! We were in love!”

Felix pushed his gun against Jasmine’s temple. I could see his mind racing, trying to figure out how he was going to get out of this. He couldn’t.

“Put the gun down, Felix,” I said, “this is over.”

“Nothing’s over,” he said. “I didn’t do nothing.”

“You’re currently brandishing a weapon,” Jack said, “and you’re attempting to kidnap the young lady.”

“This isn’t kidnapping, it’s protection. All of you, keep your distance!”

Felix backed up along the rooftop, dragging Jasmine with him. Her sneakers slipped and slid on the surface.

Felix was looking around wildly, his beady eyes darting every which way, trying to find an escape route. There were none.

“If you didn’t do it,” I said to him, “you’ve got nothing to worry about. So come on, give up the weapon. Let’s put an end to this.”

“In the old days, we didn’t have PIs nosing around, ruining things. They knew their place. They’d be on our side, not working with the pigs.”

“I’m working for you,” I reminded him.

“Not anymore you’re not. You’re fired!”

“No, you’re not,” Lia said, her voice cold, any affection she may have had for her uncle completely evaporated. “You’re definitely still working for us.”

“Rosie?” I said. “Why don’t you carry on.”

“Yes, boss! After Chase was killed, Brandon sneaked away, taking the murder weapon with him. He put it in a package and sent it to the police along with a note, pretending to be from an anonymous concerned citizen. He was trying to frame Felix.”

“He really had it coming to him!” Felix said. “Even more than I thought!”

“Shortly after this, Felix discovered that the person Misty was seeing was his own employee. An employee who was married, and who had pretended to be respectful and loyal to Felix to his face. When Felix found out that he had been running around with his daughter, he lost it. Somehow, he lured—”

I had to interrupt. Something else had just occurred to me.

“—He stole Misty’s phone,” I said, “and used it to lure Brandon.”

“You stole my phone?” Misty said. “Then why were you being so cheap about getting me a new one? I knew I didn’t lose it!”

“I didn’t do nothing,” Felix said, his voice low and growly and heavy with lies.

“Darn it,” Rosie said, “I should have realized that. So, Felix lured Brandon somewhere, shot him, and then drove him out to the desert and buried him. Only, he didn’t do a very good job of it.” Rosie gave the gun-toting businessman an appraising look. “He was working on his own, and he’s too old for that kind of activity. Felix can’t dig a grave like he used to. His back, his knees weren’t up to it.”

“Not true,” Felix said unconvincingly.

“The grave was far too shallow, and it was quickly uncovered by scavengers after he left. Which is why, the next morning, our New England twitchers, found the body while trying to snap pictures of vultures.”

“People shouldn’t be nosing around where they don’t belong,” Felix said. “I want the names of these bird-watching freaks.”

“And that,” Rosie said, “is what happened to Chase, and then Brandon.” She turned to Felix. “Unless you have anything to add?”

“None of that happened,” Felix snapped. “Now outta my way, I’ve gotta meet my lawyer.”

“I don’t want to meet a lawyer!” Jasmine wailed.

“Shut it, you,” Felix said as he took several steps backward, slowly heading toward the elevator vestibule.

He paused. Ran his eyes over all of us.

“If you’re thinking of trying to shoot every one of us except Lia and Misty,” I said, pulling my gun out of my bag. “I’d can that thought right now.”

“Who said Lia was getting off?” Felix snarled.

“Felix,” I said, “do you really think I didn’t consider you’d do something like this?”

His mouth opened before he thought of what to say. “You don’t know anything about me,” he said after a pause.

“Uh, yeah we do,” Rosie said. “We know loads about you.”

“Felix,” I said. “We put in new cameras. Your every movement is currently being broadcast downstairs to the Tremonte security office. Not only is the head of security there, but so are the two homicide detectives who’ve been investigating Brandon’s death. They’ll be adding Chase’s to their ticket as well.”

“Lies,” he said, more hopefully than with any belief. He took another step backward.

“And,” I said, “we’re not the only ones up here.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that, standing behind you, is a very large, very strong person, who is going to be tempted to snap your neck like a twig if you do anything stupid.”

“I— I don’t believe you.”

He totally believed me.

Which, he should have. Because it was true. Jan had stepped quietly out from where she had been hidden and was now a looming menace behind him. I’m sure he could sense her. His gun hand began to tremble.

“No…”

Jan slowly, lifted a hand until it was just above Felix’s shoulder.

“Yes,” I said. “Put the gun done now, or you’ll regret it.”

“No!” Felix shouted.

To no avail.

Fast as a striking cobra, Jan’s hand whipped down. Her first order of business was moving the business-end of the barrel away from Jasmine’s slightly-deranged head. Continuing the same movement, Jan wrapped her fingers around the gun and gave it a tug upward.

Felix didn’t hesitate.

He fired.

But it was too late. The bullet whizzed off toward the setting sun and then the gun was out of his hands.

Jasmine screamed and jumped backward, crashing into Jan.

Felix ran for it. He couldn’t go back, toward the elevator, so he darted to the side. At his age, and his level of fitness, it wasn’t a fast move. The man who couldn’t dig a grave properly wasn’t going to outsprint any of us on this rooftop, even me.

But also, there wasn’t much point in chasing after him in a rush. There were four fire exit stairwells on the rooftop. Three of them had Tremonte security personnel secreted beside them. The fourth had Stone.

Felix scurried along the edge of the rooftop, his head glancing over his shoulder to look for pursuit. Rosie and I were striding purposefully, but not running, after him. And we weren’t much slower than him.

Felix shouted. “Stop following me!” but it wasn’t even a threat, he had nothing to back it up with. It was a hope, nothing more.

A hopeless hope.

Felix was rapidly shuffling for the back corner, when he saw a Tremonte security guard step out from where she had been hidden. She folded her arms in front of her and gave him an expectant look.

Felix changed the angle of his limping loping run, going diagonally across the roof toward the opposite corner.

Rosie and I stalked behind him, speeding up our pace as Felix, panting, wheezing, slowed down.

This was the exit guarded by Stone. But he was nowhere to be seen. Felix saw nothing ahead, and, after glancing over his shoulder, saw us still some distance behind. He thought he might have a chance. He sped up.

Felix almost reached the door. The fire exit stairwell was a squat, rectangle in the corner of the roof, four walls, a door, and a roof to cover the stairwell. And, on top of the roof, Stone had been biding his time.

As Felix got close, Stone stood, looming like a statue from the stairwell roof. Felix didn’t even see him, his eyes were focused on the door, not on looking up.

Stone stepped forward, off the roof, and dropped the seven feet to land about a foot in front of Felix as he got close to the door.

To Felix, it must have felt like Stone had dropped out of the sky. I guess he had. Felix released a high-pitched yelp as he crashed and thumped into Stone. Stone, much taller, much broader, much more menacing, stared down at the aging criminal businessman and clapped two hands on his shoulders.

“Get off me,” Felix said in a small, defeated, hopeless voice.

Stone said nothing.

“Hands,” Rosie commanded as we reached them.

Stone pushed one shoulder and pulled the other, turning Felix around to face us, and then he squeezed his hands tight again, so he couldn’t go anywhere.

Felix stared at us, bewildered by what was happening as his world had crashed down around him.

“Hands,” Rosie repeated.

Felix stared.

Stone squeezed.

Felix yelped and stuck out his hands.

Rosie quickly secured a zip tie around his wrists and then pointed her thumb behind her. “Off you go.”

With Stone behind him and Rosie and I on either side, we marched back toward our group of suspects, witnesses, informants, and helpers and the elevator vestibule beyond, passing over the large ‘H’ that marked the soon-to-be-replaced helipad.

“Will I still get my allowance if you’re in jail?” Misty demanded.

“I hope you die in jail!” Jasmine said. “I’ll never be happy without my Chase, never!” She looked like she had more to add, but then Tyler, arm wrapped around her, gave her a reassuring squeeze to calm her.

“You should have picked me,” Lia said.

Felix stared at her blankly.

“Not Chase, certainly not Brandon. You should have picked me to be your number one. If you had, none of this would have happened.”

Finally, Felix spoke, and it was with a snarl in his voice, “It’s a man’s job.”

I think Stone must have given his shoulder an extra friendly squeeze because he yelped again.

“Not anymore,” Lia said, a cruel smile on her lips. “The company’s mine now.”

Stone moved him onward, toward the elevator. The doors opened as we approached, and the happy, cheery, ebullient figure of Elwood bounded out of the elevator like a Labrador puppy. By Elwood standards, anyway. What I mean, is that his scowl was slightly less irritated than normal, and he only looked slightly annoyed.

Behind Elwood was Emily, and behind them both were a couple of uniformed cops. Elwood directed Felix to go with them.

“Walk with me,” Elwood commanded.

I didn’t mind walking with Elwood. I knew I could always keep up with him.

Elwood was heading straight for the blue tarp, under which was Chase’s body.

“You brought me another case,” he said, his customary grump evident with every syllable.

“Yep,” I said, putting extra-chirp in my voice because I love the effect it has on him.

Elwood stood over the tarp.

“But, you’ve given me the killer as well.”

“We sure have.”

Elwood grunted. Peered down. “You mess with this? Contaminate the scene?”

I looked at him impassively. That was the only response he was getting from me to that question.

To my surprise, Elwood chuckled. Then he said, “Yeah, yeah, no worse than what the weather already did. You should have reported it when you found it. How long have you known this was here?”

I shrugged. “Not long. A couple of hours. I needed to have my little get-together before I turned it in.”

Elwood looked down at the tarp again. Grunted.

“Thanks,” Elwood said.

I nearly had a heart attack from the shock.

“Huh?”

“I’m not saying it again, don’t push your luck. But I’m not going to have to liaise with the Highway Patrol morons any longer, and I’ve got two more notches to carve on my desk. The captain’ll be happy.”

“Dinner is on you then,” I said brightly.

Elwood let out another chuckle.

“You’re on.”

Darn it! Why’d I have to go and say something so stupid? Now I had to have dinner with the king of the grumps.

Ugh.

“Stone’s coming too,” I said. That’s the good thing about having a boyfriend: you get to share your misery. Okay, maybe it’s not the only thing. But it is definitely one of the things.

“Fine.”

Rosie and Emily came over, and we left the two homicide cops to play with the body, or whatever it was they did.

Rosie and I took a spot by the wall where we could see the blood-red sky streaked with magenta, purple, and violet. The desert dust and city air pollution could give the most spectacular sunsets.

“You did it, boss,” Rosie said happily.

“No, Rosie. We did it.”

She didn’t argue the point, and just smiled widely, happily, her pleasure and delight written all over her face. Rosie was a great actress, but when she wasn’t performing, I could read her like a full-color magazine photo spread.

“And did I hear Elwood say he’s going to buy us dinner? Man, this day keeps getting better.”

“Yeah,” I said, not wanting to ruin the mood. “It sure does.”

“Oh, oh, oh!” Rosie said and gripped my arm.

“What is it?”

“Stone said we can go and see Max in a couple of days!”

I smiled at her. “That’s great. Now come on. Let’s go get that dinner.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

S

tone drove us into the compound. With its high walls, advanced security system, and dedicated staff it was almost as secure as a prison—except here they were trying to keep people out, rather than in.

“Is there anyone famous here?” Rosie asked.

“If there is,” Stone said, “don’t acknowledge them. They need their privacy like the rest of us and this was one of the few places they can get it.”

“Okie-dokie,” Rosie said agreeably.

The place was called the Celestia Sanctuary and it was half private hospital and half spa facility. It specialized in plastic surgery, beauty treatment, and detoxing. The grounds and facilities were luxurious, and it was the perfect place to go to get off an addiction, have one’s face lifted and body tightened, or hideout from bad guys in peaceful anonymity.

“Rosie! Tiffany! My main man Stone!” Max said as he greeted us at the door to his suite. “Come in, come in, come in! This place is amazing.”

Max led us into his temporary home. It wasn’t large—Max had the most basic suite available—but it was modern and comfortably appointed. There was a plush-looking two-seater sofa, a leather recliner, and a large television in the main room. Through an open door, we could see through to a small bedroom with a big bed. One wall of the living area was taken up by floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out onto park-like grounds, complete with a little stream, a small lake, and a decadent amount of grass lawn.

“Have you been keeping a low profile?” Stone asked him, voice stern with an edge you didn’t want to test the sharpness of.

Max nodded. “Yep! I’ve made friends with this group of chicks and they think I’m a movie star undercover.”

“Who do they think you are?” Rosie asked.

“Oh, they don’t know. They’re in their eighties and they don’t keep up with modern cinema. I told them their grandkids would love me, but they can’t tell anyone I’m here. Now they act like my bodyguards, making sure no one gets too close to me, and if they ask questions, they get shooed away. It’s great.”

Stone nodded. “Reveal nothing. Even to the old ladies. For all you know, their grandkids could be hitmen.”

Max gulped and nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“We were promised lunch,” I said, in case anyone had forgotten.

“Oh yeah!” Max said. “It’s pizza night!” He frowned a moment. “Well, pizza day. It’s a shame we can’t go back to Call of Pizza, but they’ve got pizza on the menu in the restaurant downstairs.”

“And don’t even think of sneaking out to go there,” Stone warned.

“Wouldn’t dream of it. Actually, I don’t ever want to leave here. This place is the best.”

We rode the elevator back downstairs and Max directed us to the main restaurant, waving at a few elderly ladies who only looked to be in their sixties as we went. He introduced Rosie as his PA, Stone as his head of security, and me as his sister. Why he didn’t go with Rosie as his sister, I have no idea. But that’s how the McCanns’ minds work I suppose.

When the pizza arrived it was as bad as good pizza gets. There was nothing wrong with it, but there wasn’t much right with it either.

“Are you disappointed?” Rosie asked.

Max nodded. “Yes. This is the worst thing to happen to me in weeks.”

“Except for people trying to murder you,” I reminded him.

“Oh yeah. That.” Max tilted his head as he thought of something. “Oh! I got some ideas!”

We had asked Max to start seriously considering who it was that was after him. Jan had loaned him an untraceable computer that, through the magic of VPNs and some relays Jan had access to, made it look as if he was changing locations across the planet every few minutes.

“My old coworker, the one who died, the one whose work I was covering? I figured out his password. It was ‘Dodge underscore Charger’—he used to drive one, and he loved it more than life itself. Which I guess is lucky, because the car’s fine and he’s dead. Anyway, now I’ve been burrowing into everything he was working on.”

“Yeah?” I said. “Any leads?”

“Not yet! But there were a few interesting emails. If I can figure out which accounts they tie into, I’ll have something to work with.”

“That’s your top priority,” Stone commanded. “You can’t stay here forever. Only until someone needs that room.” Stone paused. “Unless you’ve got thirty gees a month to pay for it?”

“No,” Max said sadly. “Also, I got fired because I haven’t shown up to work in weeks. I’ve got no income at all now.”

“Then you better hurry up and give us someone to track down,” Stone told him.

“Yes, sir,” Max said, sounding like he meant it.

Our pizza came with a house salad and a couple of orders of garlic bread. They used top-quality oil for the salad dressing—I’m a bit of a connoisseur, don’t you know—and the bread was divine. It made up for the rather lackluster pizza.

Stone and I left Rosie and her brother to catch up, and went for a stroll around the grounds.

Hand in hand, we followed the winding path that led down to the lake. We sat on a bench under a shady tree and looked out across the water. It was near silent, out there, far from the hustle and bustle of Las Vegas.

I rested my head on Stone’s shoulder.

“You did good last week,” Stone told me.

“Yeah?” Since we were next to a lake, it made sense that I was fishing. Even if it was just for compliments.

“Yep. You solved two murders in a week. That’s better than the homicide department does sometimes.”

“I guess,” I said. “But all I did was follow the trail.”

“No,” Stone said. “That’s not all you did and you know it.” He kissed the top of my head. “You’re a genius at that stuff.”

Ah. I basked in it.

“You’re the one who caught him.”

Stone snorted a laugh. “I think Angel could have caught Felix. He wasn’t much of a runner or a fighter, not without a gun.”

“We did it together,” I said.

“Yeah. Yeah, we did.”

Stone kissed me on the head again.

And for a moment, all was right in the world.

There would be more cases, more mayhem, and Max’s problems to deal with.

But for now…

Everything was peachy perfect in Las Vegas.

I hope you enjoyed reading this book!

To continue reading what happens to Stone, Tiffany and the rest of the gang:

Click Here To Read The Case of The Friendly Poisoner in Las Vegas (Tiffany Black Cases)

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Note from the author: THANK YOU!

And Please, Please Leave A Review

Thank you so much for reading my books!

I know my books aren’t for everyone – but if you enjoy reading them, thank you so much!

If you liked the book, please, please take a few minutes and leave a review. Even just a few words help!

An independent author does it all on their own, and reviews are very helpful. I appreciate each and every review, no matter how long or short.

Reviews help new readers find out about my books, which is crucial for the continued success of this series, and my ability to keep publishing work for you.

Every single review really does make a difference. Thank you again for being a reader, and I hope to see you again soon!