The night was hot but then again every night in Vegas in July is hot. I don't mean the sit-in-front-of-the-fan-in-your-t-shirt hot; I mean put-your-bra-and-panties-in-the-freezer hot. I was contemplating heading over one block to the Strip to watch tourists lose their money and nurse a rye and ginger when my secretary, Becka, decided to answer the phone.
I hate when she does that.
"New client coming in, boss." She calls me boss 'cause that's who I am. Guess I should introduce myself. My name is Ladonna Hayes. You can call me Lady, everybody does. Last week I was crossing the Strip when a motor home from Wisconsin nearly ran me down. The driver yelled, "Hey, lady, get your ass out of the street!" I wondered where he knew me from. What my background is and how I got to Vegas is a long story. I'd like to tell you, but then I'd have to kill you. It's not my rule; it's in the Private Investigator's Handbook. Page 42, I think.
Yep, you guessed it. I'm a P.I., a sleuth, a gumshoe, a dick. No, scratch that last part. I'm no dick. Never had one, never will. I'm all woman and I like all women, one at a time of course. Well, one at a time except for one rainy Tuesday in Albuquerque. I'd like to tell you about it, but then I'd have to break one of your legs in four places. The Handbook, remember? Page 63.
Sin City Confidential is the name of my business; it says so on the glass door to my office. Most people understand that I'm a private eye but at least once a week we get a phone call from some guy who thinks this is a phone sex hotline. Becka handles those. Becka has an interesting story. I hired her straight out of the pen. Of course I mean prison, did you think I meant she worked for Bic? Seems she and a former lover by the name of Eduardo got into a dust-up regarding phone calls home, using a pencil on the New York Times Sunday Crossword and whiskers in the sink. Did I mention she was a salesperson for Chicago Cutlery? She got 3 to 5 years and Eduardo got 30 to 40 stitches. I'd like to fill you in on the rest but then I'd have to gouge out your left eye and I just got my nails done.
Sin City Confidential is unique in the investigations racket here. We're only open at night. Some say it's because this city never sleeps and you can find out what you need to know 24-7. Some say the low lives I deal with come out only after dark. The truth is I'm a lazy bitch and I never get my can out of bed until after Oprah at least. If you give away that little secret, I'll have to tell your mother where you were last Friday and who you were with.Don't make me go there.
So there we were, Becka and I, waiting for our new client. Becka said the woman didn't tell her what the problem was but only left a name: Echo Mason. Echo. Now where had I heard that name before? Never mind, it'll come to me eventually. I wandered over to the small office bathroom and checked my look in the mirror. Not bad, I thought. Black hair, blue eyes and not bad looking on the days I remember Max Factor isn't an Algebra equation.
Just then the door opened and in walked a tall, dark stranger. Well, she would have been if she hadn't been short and blonde. Short, blonde and extremely cute. I'd like to tell you what she did to my libido but then I'd have to make you write a check to Jessie Helms' re-election campaign. Even Becka was impressed. I mean really impressed, she had been standing behind the door when it opened and the knob caught her flush in the mid-section. After I got Becka a Tylenol and a Worker's Comp form, I asked the blonde to sit down and tell me what the problem was.
"Well, Ms. Hayes..." she began.
"Call me Lady," I said.
She smiled sweetly and said, "As in 'Lady and the Tramp'?" I looked over at Becka and thought she probably didn't deserve that, but I let it pass.
"Whatever," I replied. She smiled at me again and my heart was caught like a firefly at Girl Scout camp. "So, have a seat tell me why you need my services."
She sat on one end of the worn leather couch near the window and I sat next to her. "All business, aren't you? I like that in a person," she said.
I briefly thought what I might like in her, but I shook myself from the fantasy. I'd tell you what I was thinking but then I'd have to give you about a dozen paper cuts. The Handbook, page 14.
"Well, Lady, it's about a missing person case."
"Just who is missing?" I asked immediately.
She stared at me for a moment and said, "I am."
I'll be the first to say that nothing really rattles me, but when Echo gave me her answer I'm sure my jaw was hanging like a chad on a Florida ballot. I've been in the private eye business a long time but this was a new one on me. I thought I would just play along with her little game.
"Okay, you're right here. I found you. That'll be two hundred bucks plus expenses."
"No, no, you don't understand. The missing person is my twin sister, Prudence. She looks exactly like me."
"Tell me your story, sister. Don't leave anything out, especially if there's a pony involved." She just stared at me for a second then began the tale.
"We're from a small town in Iowa. My sister has always been the restless type and wanted to come out here ever since she saw 'Viva Las Vegas' with Elvis."I could understand that, I had watched that movie on cable just last week and Ann Margaret had been totally hot. I could tell you what I was doing with my hot buttered popcorn during her scenes, but then I'd have to publish your permanent file from high school.
Echo continued. "At first she wrote that she got a job as an assistant in the coroner's office but quit because it was such a dead end job. Then she was the roller coaster ride operator at Circus Circus but she felt that job wasn't really going anywhere. Finally she saved her money and went to dealer's school. She was so proud when she wrote and told me about her new job dealing blackjack at 'Lucky Lou's Diamond'. That was over 2 months ago and we haven't heard from her since," she concluded as she started to get a little choked up.
I'm not much good at comforting the ladies, my talents lie elsewhere, but this poor kid from the Hawkeye State brought out a tenderness in me I hadn't used since 1997. I would fill you in on the circumstances, but then I'd have to give you a painful Indian burn on the left forearm. P.I Handbook, bottom of page 38.Let's just say that it was the last time I let my heart rule over my head, or other parts further south.
I gave her an awkward hug and I saw Becka's jaw drop to the floor. Clearing my throat, I pulled my hard-boiled persona back on. "What else have you got for me to go on? I assume you've checked her address already. Habits? What does she like to do with her time, what kind of places does she go to?"
Echo thought a moment. "Well, like I said she looks just like me except for a few small things. Her blonde hair is a little darker than mine and she has a tattoo just below her belly button. It's a sailboat with the words 'Welcome Aboard'. She smokes unfiltered Camels, prefers Jell-O shots and is, well, very friendly with gentlemen."
A description like that and Echo only called her sister "restless"? When I started looking for her I figured I could just scratch the Christian Science Reading Room off my list of places to check.
"You said she wrote and told you she got a job dealing at Lucky Lou's Diamond, huh?"
Echo nodded. "Lady, can you help me? Please?"
I gazed into those green pools and against my better judgment I agreed. Echo gave me an awkward hug this time and leaned over to give me an affectionate kiss. It was the first time I'd had an affectionate kiss with tongue but maybe they do things different in Iowa.
Becka yelled, "Get a room for God's sake!" and we broke apart.
"Let's go find your sister," I said to Echo. As we left the office I reviewed the three things I knew about this case so far. One, I was falling hard, like my granny without her walker, for the blonde. Two, Becka was going to have a nasty bruise tomorrow and third, Prudence didn't work at Lucky Lou's Diamond. It had been closed for over a year.
I knew Lucky Lou's Diamond had been closed because I'm the one who got it closed. I had heard stories of underage girls being used in a bunch of unwholesome activities and I went down there to investigate. I could never get any of the girls to go to the cops with their story but my statement to the Gaming Commission was enough to get his gaming license pulled. Without gambling, the Diamond folded like a cheap paper towel.
I told Echo I would need her nearby to answer any questions I might have as I investigated. Truth is I just wanted her nearby. Now I should say right here I don't usually get involved with clients, I don't need to. There was just something about the little blonde that made my hormones jump up and do the Texas two-step. I guided Echo to my Mustang ragtop and we headed out to see a guy I know. That's actually his name, Guy Ino. He's been a good source of information in the past. On the way to where I knew I would find Guy, the blonde kept staring at me.
"What?" I finally asked.
Echo shrugged. "You look like just like somebody I've seen on TV. What was her name?" She suddenly snapped her fingers. "Got it! You look just like Xena!" Xena? The woman thought I looked like a beer? I dismissed the thought but I also felt she looked familiar but couldn't place her. I couldn't think of it so I just let her go on and gab.
"So, where are we going?"
I told her about Guy Ino, and how he worked for the Clark County records office. I explained how in Nevada, if you were going to work around any of the vices like drinking or gambling, you needed a work card.They run a deep check on you and if you're an undesirable, you don't work. She laughed at that and for a minute I took offense for my adopted hometown. Hey, we may have gambling, legal prostitution, drinking and Sigfreid and Roy but that doesn't mean we don't have our standards!
I got over it and we soon arrived at the Pumpkin Bar. Oddly enough, the Pumpkin was a place frequented by a lot of people from the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee.Who knows why? We walked in and the cool of the air conditioning hit us. The jukebox was blaring Elvis' "Little Sister".I spotted Guy by the bar with a very young brunette wrapped around him. He saw me and smiled.
"Hey Lady, you're looking good. Meet my cousin Sandy," he said as he indicated the brunette. "And who might this be?" he asked nodding with interest at Echo. "She a relative of yours?"
"Well, she's family but she's not my family," I replied, "so take your eyeballs off her before I have to..."
"P.I. Handbook page 94, sub-paragraph C me?" I squinted my eyes with my best Clint Eastwood glare and nodded. Guy gulped and said, "God, I hate that one! Eyes are back in my head, Lady, I swear. Now, do you want to tell me why you're here hassling a poor public servant?"
"I need information, Guy and you're just the one to get it for me." Guy relaxed, sensing a moneymaking opportunity.
"Yeah? What do you need?"
"We want to track down Echo's sister and she said her place of employment was Lucky Lou's Diamond but you and I know she couldn't be there."
Guy's eyebrows scrunched together. "You're right there, but maybe she's an employee of Lucky Lou's new venture." I hadn't heard about this but it was why I came to the Pumpkin in the first place. If you ever want the inside information about Vegas, go see that Guy Ino.
Guy continued, "I heard he's running an outcall jiggle-show business now called 'Lucky Lou's Hard as a Diamond Lap Dances'. Call 555-HARD to make an appointment, or so I heard." He grinned wickedly.
"Thanks, Guy." I tossed a C-note on the bar, took Echo by the hand and left the joint. The jukebox was playing "He ain't Heavy, He's my Brother" as we stepped back into the heat of the Vegas night.
"I guess we're getting pretty close now," Echo said. "She's involved in something awful, isn't she?"
I nodded yes to both the statement and the question. The blonde bit a trembling lower lip and struggled to maintain her composure. Then she did that thing that tears me up every time. Echo started to cry. I opened my arms and she walked into them. I could tell you how I felt as I held here there, but then...
Oh hell, you can have that one for free.
I dropped Echo off at her motel and thought about heading home but went back to the office instead. There wasn't much left to the night but I couldn't get my mind off the cute blonde and her problem doppelganger. Lucky Lou was a nasty piece of business. He didn't have mob connections and he didn't have power or prestige but he did have the worst case of eczema I'd ever seen. Normally that's no skin off my nose but this guy was just gross!
I made a few phone calls to confirm Guy's facts and by the time the sun was rising I was convinced he was right. I decided to sleep on the leather couch in the office instead of driving to my cramped apartment. I couldn't bear the thought of being alone there after I had been keeping company with the lovely Echo overnight. I pulled a blanket, a pillow and black eye shades from the broom closet and was just about to peel out of my clothes when there was a knock on the office door. The office hours were clearly listed next to the door so I called out "Who is it?"
"Las Vegas Messenger Service, ma'am. I have a package for Ms. Hayes."
"Just leave it by the door," I instructed.
I heard the guy head off down the hall and I opened the door cautiously, my trusty .38 in my hand. No one was in the hall but a small package was wrapped in plain brown paper. I didn't remember ordering anything from that adult bookstore recently and nothing that would fit in a package that small. I could describe what I ordered from them before but then I'd have to show you why I always carry that roll of duct tape around with me. The Handbook, page 2, just after the table of contents.
Bringing the package to the desk, I noticed there was no return address. I didn't hear a ticking so I opened the thing up. There was a muffled explosion and nightfall returned to Las Vegas with a vengeance.
Hot and wet. Under other circumstances these might not have been unpleasant sensations to wake up to, but something told me these circumstances were going to be very unpleasant. Wherever I was, there was no air conditioning and the sweat trickled down my back. I instructed my eyelids to open but the damn things were being pretty uncooperative at the moment. All of a sudden they had a little help in their mission. My right eyelid was raised and an obscene amount of light flooded in.
"Yeah, she's awake." The voice was familiar but I couldn't place it at first. Then a miracle happened; it started to snow in Las Vegas in July. I gagged a little as I suddenly realized the voice belonged to Lucky Lou and it wasn't snow but dry skin that was falling on me.
"Back it up, blizzard boy," I growled and was rewarded with a smack to my already throbbing head.
"Now, Lady, is that any way to greet your host?"Both of my eyelids decided to function then. I looked around to see I was in Lucky Lou's Diamond and had been unceremoniously dumped onto a blackjack table. It was obvious the place had been closed for a while. The slot machines were gone and most of the tables in the pit were covered. It was a toss-up as to what was dustier, Lucky Lou's Diamond or Lucky Lou himself.
Lou moved back to a place near a small lamp at the pit boss' podium. A small blonde that looked familiar joined him.
"Echo!" I cried out in misery. "You're working with him?"
"No, Lady, I never would!" came a voice from somewhere off to my right. Craning my neck I could see Echo tied down to partially dismantled craps table. Relief washed over me as I realized the blonde with Lucky Lou the Snowman was Prudence, Echo's sister. Now that my vision was clearing up I could see the subtle differences in the two sisters.
"All right, Lou, you got me here so what do you want from me? I can't believe I fell for the old remote controlled stun grenade in a plain brown wrapper trick but I guess my mind was preoccupied with other things." I glanced over at Echo and was rewarded with a loving smile.
"I don't want anything from you, Lady. You did enough for me by ruining my business. I'm gonna give you something though that I owe you. I thought you looked a little tired lately so in a few minutes a couple of my boys will be here to take you on a nice long drive into the desert where you can take a dirt nap. Permanently." Lucky Lou laughed then and skin dropped like nuclear fallout. "Then, I'm gonna take your little girlfriend and her sister here and we're gonna have us a little party. They're no Mary Kate and Ashley, but they'll do."
I could hear Echo gasp and I started to worry. I could tell you how much I didn't like my chances in that situation but then I'd have to wash your bright colors with your whites. I know it's in the Handbook, but the page number escapes me at the moment.
"This is between you and me, snowball," I spat out."Let Echo go and I promise I'll see to it you get a horse hair brush and a big bottle of Oil of Olay in prison."
Lucky Lou's smile fell flat as an Olympic gymnast's chest and he pulled a gun from his pocket, aiming the barrel directly between my eyes.
"I was gonna wait, but I think I'll give myself the pleasure of your demise right now, smart mouth."
Echo screamed, "Please, no!" as I saw the finger on the trigger tighten. Shit! I was going to die on a blackjack table and I never even asked for a hit.
Prudence, who had been silent up until this point grabbed Lou's arm and moved it just enough that the shot went a little wide of its mark. I heard the bullet whip past me and imbed itself into one of the chairs in back of the blackjack table I was laying on.
"No, Lou, you promised me! You said we would just scare them a little. You would get revenge on that detective and I would send my goody-goody sister back to Iowa. You never said anything about anybody dying."
"Plans change, Pru, just like your plans changed when came to work for me. You didn't mind my plans when I taught you how to turn a few tricks and become 'Hundred Pru-ff.' Just shut up or I might have to make a phone call and let the cops know just who Hundred Pru-ff really is. Now move out of the way!"
Hundred Pru-ff! Even I had heard that name. She was the most expensive call girl in Vegas and now I knew what Lou had hanging over her head. I tried to sit up but didn't get very far. I wasn't tied down but the effects of the stun grenade were still doing a good job of keeping me there anyway.
Prudence stepped away from Lou and shot me an apologetic look. Lou returned the gun to my direction and smiled at me. His low rumbling chuckle cause more flakes of skin to fall and the scene became a nightmare version of "White Christmas".
"See ya in hell, Lady," Lou cackled and his eyes took on a mad glint. His cheese had finally slipped all the way off his cracker. I looked at Echo, wanting her sweet face to be the last thing I saw.
Instead of the sound of a gunshot, a dull thud came from the direction where Lucky Lou was standing. He was holding his arm in obvious pain and a stiletto heel protruded from the arm. The arm was bleeding but he hadn't released the gun.
"Why you little bitch!" he snarled at Prudence. "For that you and your sister can join our detective friend!" He raised the gun and I took this moment to call on every bit of reserve strength I had to push myself off the blackjack table and launch myself at Lou. We grappled for control of the gun. I had more skill but he had the strength of a madman. A shot went off and I heard a scream of pain behind me. The worry that the scream came from Echo gave me the strength I needed to finish Lou off. I kicked high into his crotch and he dropped like a rock. I have to remember to thank Becka for talking me into those steel-toed hiking boots.
I took the gun, patted him down and pulled a cell phone from a dusty pocket. Looking around I saw Prudence bleeding from her right shoulder. I went to her and saw the bullet had passed through cleanly. I ripped a bandage out of one of the pit table covers and place it tightly against the wounds then dialed 911. I could already hear sirens in the distance by the time I made my way over to the craps table and Echo.
I released the ropes that held the woman that held my heart; she sat up and hugged me hard.
"Hey there, everything's going to be fine. Prudence is going to be fine too. It's just a flesh wound." I found myself giving comfort again and realized this was getting to be a habit. If you tell anyone I said that I'd be forced to turn a ferret loose up your pant leg. The Handbook, under "Plan B".
I helped Echo off the table and she went to her sister for a tearful reunion. The cops came in just about then followed closely by the paramedics. A cop I'd never seen before looked stunned at the picture he saw in front of him. He eyed me suspiciously and asked, "What the hell happened here, lady?"
I wondered where he knew me from.
We told our stories to the cops and Prudence was hauled away to Valley Hospital in the ambulance with the promise that we would catch up with her there. I saw her passing out business cards to the paramedics and rolled my eyes, but said nothing to Echo about it.
I was just turning back to ask the blonde if she was ready to go when I noticed she was sitting again on the craps table. I wandered over to her and she looked up at me with those green pools and I was lost again.
"Do you think Prudence will be all right, Lady?"
"Yeah, I think so," I replied. "Her wound will heal and if she testifies against Lucky Lou she might get off with a slap on the wrist." I felt nervous as I asked the next question. "So, what about you? Going back to Iowa?"
"I don't think so," she said. "I'm kind of getting used to the heat, but I don't know a thing about gambling. She looked down and murmured, "For instance, which one of these do I play?"
I followed her line of sight and saw the Come/Don't Come line between her legs. I brought my eyes up to hers.
"That's easy, bet on 'Come' every time," I said as I reached for her.
I could tell you what happened next in Sin City, but as the sign on my office door says, that's confidential.
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