Vendetta: A Deadly Win by Nancy A. Niles

COMPULSION, RETRIBUTION, TWISTED ATONEMENT

When Private Investigator, Tina Munroe agrees to help out an old friend little does she know the danger she’s put herself and her loved ones in.  Billy Hutchins is being stalked by a killer who has a bead on him and Tina’s desire to protect Billy places her squarely in the stalker’s sights.  She encounters vandalism, a psycho with a Molotov cocktail, a gangster who has his own agenda for mixing into her case and a high speed chase through the city of Las Vegas.  The reader is taken to Laughlin, Nevada, The Lake Mead Marina, the World Series of Poker in Vegas and a trek through the pouring rain in the pitch black of night through a snake infested desert.  Time is running out when her friend and assistant, Megan is kidnapped.  Have Tina’s actions to save one friend caused another friend to die?  Can she stop the killer in time?  Could the killer be someone she knows and trusts?

PROLOGUE 

The red neon lights reminded Paul Faraday of blood running down the sides of the buildings. The drops were big and small, round and oblong and flashed and blinked with the rhythm of a thousand beating hearts. Bright red, dark red, pale red in a dizzying display that climbed across billboards and tinged the air with surreal light.

He usually loved the garish landscape before him. But tonight he took no pleasure from the brilliant neon, saw no beauty as he drove past the multi-million dollar high rise casinos that lined the boulevard. His mind circled and spun around the thought that had haunted him since the ransom demand:

Everything is my fault.

His fault they’d come to this city, his fault he’d had the affair with his secretary, Darla. His fault his wife, Anna, in a jealous rage had stormed from their mansion yesterday and hadn’t been seen since. Correction: kidnapped.

Paul skidded to a halt noticing the red light at the last minute and caused a group of pedestrians to skitter around the brand new Mercedes and shout obscenities. He rolled down his window. His chest compressed so tightly that his breath came in short gasps. “I will find you, Anna,” his voice rumbled loudly. “I will never abandon you. We will leave this godforsaken town!”

A snarling motorcycle answered inches from his door. Muscular, tattooed arms revved the powerful Harley. Dark sunglasses wrapped around the biker’s granite-like head and reflected Paul’s worried face back to him. The biker grinned and then laughed out loud.

What a pathetic sight I must be.

He pulled his silk cuffs over his platinum Rolex and tapped the steering wheel with manicured fingernails.

I’m a crazy old man in an eighty thousand dollar car talking to himself.

He could feel the biker’s eyes on him, sizing him up. Paul glared at the biker who shook his head and looked away.

Why is this city such a magnet for riff raff?

A deep feeling of despair descended upon him. He stared at the throng of long haired, leather clad, chain wearing, muscle bound bikers with their cans of beer, cigarettes and barely concealed knives and guns. Where did all these people come from? Who are these people? The annual River Run brought the world of losers and low life’s to the city of Laughlin. The kidnapper could be any of them: a transient, a psycho, a shadow on the highway. The kidnapper could easily slip through the night with Anna and vanish forever.

He fumbled a cigarette from the pack and lit it with the twenty-four carat gold lighter Anna had given him. The light turned green and in his haste to turn off the main road the car jumped the curb, causing more shouts and curses from the startled masses. Soon traffic thinned and disappeared.

This situation is not so different from what you grew up with, Old Paulie.

Whoever kidnapped Anna had no idea of the myriad threats Paul had taken care of over a very long and violent career. Situations he’d remedied in dark alleys and soundproofed rooms. Yes, that had been Paul’s specialty all those years ago. How long had that been? Thirty years? And it had been Anna’s brother, Vic Costello, a well-connected casino owner in Jersey who had recognized and cultivated his brother-in-law’s potential. Had treated Paul as if they were brothers, had trusted him without question.

Had, had, had, as in past tense. Paul’s falling out with Anna’s brother had nearly cost him his life. What would Costello think about this? Paul had failed to keep Anna safe. And his decision to keep this secret from Costello nagged at him. He’d seen Costello’s temper and feared that once they’d saved Anna, Costello would arrange an “unfortunate accident” for him and even the incriminating records he kept on Costello would not protect him if Anna turned up dead. Paul knew he’d wind up buried out in the desert with the army of losers before him. Losers he’d helped Costello take care of.

Fear is for suckers and fools.

And Paul fell into neither category. Costello could not hurt him if he couldn’t find him and Paul had planned for just this type of emergency. He’d kept his Swiss bank accounts secret all these years and even Anna had no inkling of the money he had stashed overseas.

As desert scrub and tank sized boulders flashed past his car he relaxed his chest muscles and forced his breath to come easier. He may have changed outwardly and put on a respectable face, but his true nature could never change. He could handle the situation. He would get Anna back safely and they would leave this backward town. Go back to New Jersey. And besides, he’d brought what the kidnapper wanted.

The overstuffed black briefcase sat on the Corinthian leather passenger seat like a silent witness. It held two hundred and fifty thousand dollars in small, unmarked bills. Three more identical cases were in the trunk. One million dollars – enough to start a new life with Anna. No way would he hand that over to the kidnapper.

The loser probably wants the money for drugs.

The pale glow of moonlight winked out as clouds passed overhead and Paul snuffed out the cigarette and flashed on the brights. The kidnapper is most likely strung out and scared out of his mind. Paul knew he would have no problem getting Anna and taking care of the punk.

Besides, he’d brought a gun, safely nestled on top of the bills. Paul had run through his plan a thousand times. He’d open the case and pull out some bundles of cash to distract the kidnapper. Once he got the drop on the creep he would force him to tell where to find Anna and then Paul would give him his real reward: a hot metal bullet right between the eyes. Easy. Simple. Straightforward. The Faraday way.

Paul lit another cigarette and glanced in the rearview mirror. The black ribbon of highway fell away into eternity. A hazy glow surrounded the city. He saw no cars ahead or behind. The barren desert landscape that stretched out around him gave him an uncomfortable feeling. He’d always hated the desert, hated the wide open spaces that made him feel as though he were a specimen under glass. As though every move he made came to the attention of an unknown and mysterious watcher.

He’d felt this way ever since he and Anna had moved here. His job as controller of the Desert Dreams Hotel and Casino had come with some mighty tight strings attached. Costello had spies throughout Paul’s casino and it had been a major coup that he’d been able to remove the ransom money from the casino vault without tipping off security. It would only be a matter of time before Costello would be breathing down his neck again.

But that did not cause the shaking in his hands or the cold sweat popping on his brow. He could feel someone watching him, tracking his car. The low lying hills could hold any number of snipers and he’d never see them coming.

Would he see a sudden flash of light in the inky darkness? Would the last thing he ever saw be a bright star blasting him into eternity? Would an unknown assassin strike as he rounded the next bend? He let up on the gas.

Calm down. Stop freaking yourself out.

He scanned the shadows as he rounded the bend. No gunshots, no snipers, no death stars. When would he reach the railroad switching yard? In all the years he’d lived in Laughlin he’d never been out here, never had any reason to romp in the desert. Anything could happen out here, and probably did. He felt as though he were traveling along the surface of the moon. The kidnapper had picked a very secluded place. A long abandoned railroad car seemed to sprout from the desert floor, its hulking mass sitting lopsided, the windows broken out and graffiti splashed across its once bright red walls.

Paul’s plans changed in the microsecond it took him to realize there were too many places here someone could be hiding. He unlatched the clasp on the case, then stuffed his hand inside, his fingers fumbling around the grip of the .45. Without warning a blast of light shot through the interior of the car, blinding him. He jerked the car sideways and skidded off the road. Rocks banged against the undercarriage and the gun fell from his grasp as he struggled with the wheel.

He floored the gas, sending the large black car fishtailing back onto the narrow road. His heart pounded in his throat. Glancing in the rearview mirror, he saw a white van quickly gaining on him.

Come on, Paulie. Now’s not the time to panic.

He darted his eyes to the gun on the passenger floor. If he could stop the car he could grab it, but the van kept closing in. Think. He pulled a tape recorder from his inside pocket and pressed the record button. “There’s a white van following me.” He was surprised his voice sounded so calm, so in control. He continued, “It’s the kidnapper. I’m heading for the switching yard.” He tucked the recorder into his shirt pocket and watched the van grow larger. “It’s a late model Chevy or Ford van,” he said, feeling the panic dissolve. “There’s no license plate and the left head light is dimmer than the right.”

That’s it. Keep your head.

He felt the old calm, the old nerve kick in. If somehow the kidnapper got the upper hand at least whoever found him, probably Costello and his goons, would have something to go on to find Anna. He only needed half a second to grab the gun.

The tall X that marked the switching yard and maintenance shed loomed in front of him. He almost missed the turnoff, skidding along the road and making a wide turn onto the dirt road that led to the small wood hut. The undercarriage hit a boulder.

In a swirl of dust and gravel Paul brought the Mercedes to a halt. As he dove for the gun the back window shattered and a boom echoed throughout the interior. He grabbed at the .45 but missed, sending the revolver flying across the floor. Another blast shattered the glass at his door, raining sharp shards on his head. With a desperate lunge his hand clamped around the cold metal. Suddenly hands were on him pushing his face onto the leather seat, the case of money fell forward and stacks of bills tumbled out. Paul twisted under the weight of his assailant and brought the gun up. Unable to aim, he fired uselessly into the dash. A knee dug into his back, pinning him down and a sharp blow to the back of his head made black blotches swirl in his vision. The man wrenched the gun from his hand and the weight mercifully lifted. Hands grabbed at his jacket and he felt himself being dragged from the car. Something snapped in his shoulder as he hit the hard packed ground, a boot rammed into his side and he screamed out in pain. Sand clogged his nose and he coughed and spit as he scrambled across the rocky dirt.

“I never thought I’d see the great Paul Faraday grovel.” The amused sounding voice froze Paul in place. “Not so brave now without your gangster friends to save you, are you?”

Shame and fury overtook Paul. His knees cracked loudly as he rose and stood unsteadily. “You’ve had your fun,” he brushed the dust from his suit and flexed his shoulders. Paul had seen the black hole of a gun pointing at his heart before. Anyone can point a gun, not many actually had the balls to fire. The thing that bothered him though were the steady nerves of the gunman, he did not shake and he did not seem to be at all uncertain or hesitant. In fact, a big smile spread across his face as he stared into Paul’s eyes.

“Gonna play it tough, huh?” The man taunted. “I am a bit disappointed. I’d hoped you’d beg for your life, or at least reveal the cowardly bastard I know you are. But the night is still young.”

Paul hadn’t expected this. No stoned out punk stood before him. This man appeared to be something worse, much worse. He stared into the face of the kidnapper, a face that could have been a stone mask that had been etched with lines and shadows of rage and purpose. The eyes sparked with insanity.

“Look,” Paul matched the calm voice. “I’ve brought the money, it’s yours. I’ve done everything you asked. I’m not a threat. You’ve taken my gun. You’ve proven you’re a more clever man. Just tell me where Anna is and we’ll end our business here.”

A twitch tugged at the gunman’s left eye. “Still giving orders,” he said so softly Paul had to strain to hear him. “You’re either more stupid than I thought, or a very deluded man. Which is it, Paul?” the man suddenly yelled and the gun went off. An angry buzzing sound whizzed past his head and he felt acid sear his ear. He flinched at the burn and stumbled to remain upright. Something warm dripped down his neck and then a shock of pain caused the earth to tilt. He focused on the gunman and willed himself to stay conscious. He embraced the pain and used it to stay sharp. He would not beg for his life, would not give the man the satisfaction.

The kidnapper’s voice sounded as though coming through a tube and Paul realized he’d gone deaf in his left ear. “I’m very curious about you, Paul,” he said. “Just look at you. You’re a dumpy old man in duds that cost more than I make in a year, you seem so normal, so respectable. You’re just a hard working schlub who made good. But you’ve got a dark side, too, don’t you, Paul?”  He took a step closer. “How many people have you killed, huh? Ten, twenty, a hundred?”

The words barely registered in Paul’s brain. Something primitive had taken control of his being. He stared at the man, every sense on alert, every muscle tensed and waiting to spring.

The kidnapper drew closer. “You don’t recognize me, do you?”

That jolted him. He stared at the man and noticed a familiarity and recognized something about the nose, the voice. He did know this man. But how?

“I didn’t think so,” the kidnapper snarled. “Why would you remember me? My life is just one more that you ruined. I’m just one more victim on your way to riches and power. And my son, my son meant nothing to you. My son would have done great things,” his voice cracked, “but you made sure he never had a chance.”

An ache squeezed Paul’s left arm and his heart thumped in his chest like a broken piston. He wondered if he could be having a heart attack. Would he die before he could get to Anna? A shudder ran through his body.

His mind scrambled to think of something, anything. “Look pal, the money is all there, just take it and leave. You can get far away on a million bucks,” he reasoned. “Don’t do something that’ll get you killed,” his words came out in a rush. “You don’t know the kind of people who would come after you if you killed us. Just give me Anna . . . now!”

The kidnapper’s chuckle sent chills down Paul’s spine.

“Money won’t fix your problems this time,” the kidnapper said in a hiss that sounded straight from hell, full of pain and evil. “I am going to kill you, Mr. Faraday. Make no mistake about that. Kill you for what you did to my son.”

The son again. Paul could see the madness in his eyes, hear it in his voice. Paul’s only hope lay in keeping him talking, distract him into making a mistake.

“I haven’t done anything to anybody.” Paul took two steps toward the looming figure. “If you want to kill me, then kill me, but let Anna go, she hasn’t harmed a soul.”

“She’s the same as you. None of you deserve to live,” The kidnapper’s voice had a hypnotic quality, the cadence slow and measured.

“Tell me who you are,” Paul took another step closer. “I’ll do everything in my power to make things right. I don’t know what I did to you or your son—”

“Too late, Mr. Faraday, too late,” the kidnapper said. “My boy’s dead and now you must die.”

Paul lunged for the gun and a kick to his stomach rewarded his effort, doubling him over and leaving him gasping for breath. Cold steel of the gun’s muzzle pressed against his head.

“All you need to know, Mr. Faraday,” the cylinder being cocked clicked in Paul’s ear with a terminal finality, “is that I am The Fixer. And tonight the Faraday problem will be taken care of. Permanently.”

Despite his efforts to show no fear, a whimper escaped Paul’s lips. He suddenly realized he’d never hold Anna again, never go home to Jersey, never leave this godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere. And he could do absolutely nothing about it.

Chapter One

Tom Alley and the Pussy Cats cranked out a bluesy rendition of Moon River while dark silhouettes of bodies undulated on the crowded dance floor. A spinning mirror globe hanging from the ceiling threw shards of colored light and made the entire ballroom appear to be underwater. The annual Halloween Ball looked to be in full swing and turning away from the dizzying scene I saw the man in the pirate costume at the edge of my vision.

He peered over a video poker machine, his eyes darted to me and then he hid back behind the machine. He would blend into the crowds and sometimes get ahead of me. But a few quick turns and direction changes had forced him to reveal his intentions. He had been following me for a good twenty minutes.

Alf and Mrs. Conehead strolled up to me and I gave them the universal peace symbol of two fingers spread in a V.

“Peace, earthling,” Alf said, who, on any day other than Halloween had been Eddie and who dealt cards in the Black Jack pit. “What sharp and bloody teeth you have.”

“I needed them to eat that so called steak dinner,” I said, turning toward the pirate and watched him move across the aisle to another row of video poker machines.

“Filet of rubber, huh?”

“More like tire tread tri tip.”

“Try to say that fast a few dozen times,” Mrs. Conehead said, who I recognized behind the white pancake makeup to be Evie, one of the waitresses who worked here at the Oasis Hotel and Casino in the coffee shop.

“Cool outfit,” Eddie gestured to my Elvira wig, black satin cape and plastic fangs. The rest of the outfit, a white T-shirt and jeans, constituted my usual work apparel. I call it my on-vacation-grunge look. I’m thirty-two years old, five feet four and weigh between 110 and 115, depending on my junk food jones. I usually pull my shoulder length red hair back into a bun and nothing about me reveals that I work undercover for the casino. Even my tiny ear piece could be mistaken for one of those hearing aids that so many of the senior citizens that spend the day playing penny slots wear.

“What brings you to this area?” Eddie asked. “I thought you were working the tables.”

“I’m on break and noticed a certain pirate following me,” I nodded toward the man who now lurked behind the change booth. “I’ve been circling around the poker machines and am sure he’s dogging me.”

“Lots of pirates and wannabe gangsters around here,” Evie said, her red, plump lips formed into a pout.

“Those gangsters are not Halloween costumes,” Eddie said. “They’re the usual denizens of Vegas. Along with Elvis and Sinatra.” He saluted to a man in a Frank Sinatra mask wearing a suit, tie and hat set back on his head. “I love this city.”

“How do you know the same pirate’s been following you?” Evie asked.

“Hey, she’s a detective,” Eddie said. “Plus her vampire super senses heighten her powers of observation. So, Tina, why do you think he’s following you?”

I shrugged and stared at the man who wore dark glasses, and a beard that could very well have been fake that covered the entire lower half of his face. A red bandana covered his head so completely I could not tell what color hair he had or if he even had any hair. He stood around five eleven or so and had a thin build. A red T-shirt tucked into jeans and a red sash encircled his waist. I noticed something off about his face and then realized he wore a fake nose that attached to the eye patch.

“Don’t know,” I said. “But I think it’s time to catch a ne’er do well.”

“Make him walk the plank, Matey,” Eddie saluted to me.

“Aye, aye,” I turned toward my pirate mark who walked in the opposite direction and disappeared around a corner. Strolling back into the crowds of the casino I picked him up again. I backtracked and ducked around a row of slot machines, expecting to come up on him. Instead I found myself in a deserted, mirror lined corner staring at my own reflection.

Suddenly my shadow appeared behind me. He rammed me from behind and clamped an arm around my chest, his other hand, encased in a rough glove grabbed around my throat. Staring at the bizarre images unfolding in the mirror I held onto his wrist and doubled over as though trying to touch my hands to my feet. His body draped over my back and as he stumbled off balance I raised my hips, taking all his weight on my lower back and then flipped him onto the thick carpeted floor.

Before I had a chance to pin him, a costumed Dolly Parton rounded the bank of slots and screamed: “What’s going on here?”

That half second of hesitation gave him what he needed. He scrambled to his feet and ran to an exit about ten feet away from where we’d scuffled. I ran to the door and looked out into the parking garage. The sound of his running feet faded and I stepped back into the casino breathing heavily and feeling a rush of adrenaline jangling through my limbs. The woman stared big eyed at me.

“Are you all right, honey?” she asked and handed me the Elvira wig that had fallen off in the tussle.

My legs were shaky and I smoothed my T-shirt, noting the big tear down the side. I ran my fingers through my tousled hair and snagged my ear piece that dangled down my arm. When I repositioned the unit in my ear, it emitted some static and I heard the pit boss say, “There’s a suspicious player at blackjack table six, Munroe. Get over there on the double.”

“We sure don’t need purse snatchers and pickpockets around here,” the woman said. “These one armed bandits are doing a great job of robbing everyone blind as it is.”

I agreed with her, except for one little glitch: I hadn’t been carrying a purse and that man had not been reaching for my pockets. He’d gone for my throat.

A security guard finally appeared and I told him what I could about the man, noting only his disguise and size. The guard relayed the information into his handheld radio and then said, “Probably someone using a magnet on the machines or looking to steal a pocketbook,” his shrug conveyed his non interest. “He’s surely long gone, but me and my team will search the casino and be on the lookout for him in the hotel.”

I made my way to table six, the pit boss’s voice in my ear explaining the scam that appeared to be taking place.

An Asian woman in her early twenties dealt the cards with thin, well manicured fingers and sailed the cards across the table to the two players. One of the players, a lean, muscular package with a twitching right eye and clicking teeth appeared to have been plugged into a vibrator. What looked like straggly, gray whiskers sprouted from the top of his head and thin hair at the sides pulled back into a puny ponytail.

“What are you?” Mr. Vibrator harangued the dealer. “Korean? Viet Na Mese? This is payback for Vietnam, right? Slaughter the round eye!” He snapped his fingers. “Hey, I’ll bet you’re one of my bastard kids.”

The dealer clicked her tongue, his attempt to throw her off tilt obviously not working. She flipped over the house cards and displayed an ace and a queen. His chips, along with the other player’s, clacked into her tray.

“Bets up,” the dealer said, unperturbed by his actions and I slid onto a stool across from Mr. Vibrator.

I positioned a chip in the betting circle. Five days a week from eight in the morning until three in the afternoon, I spent my time here busting pathetic card cheats. Like Mr. Vibrator whom, granted, I didn’t recognize. Which had not been at all unusual given the fact that the casino’s little black book of excluded persons had become volumes within the last five years. So many people tried to scam the casinos that I sometimes wondered if someone were giving classes on the subject.

This gig gave me steady work and that meant a steady paycheck. And the hours allowed me to work part time for Bernie Phillips in his private eye business. Plus I got to see my old friend Billy “Hutch” Hutchins, who’d actually been the one to hire me.

Hutch and I go back to grade school, two of the few true native Las Vegans. In the late seventies Las Vegas had been a small city with only a handful of schools to choose from with the result that Hutch and I were together in every grade. Now he worked as President of Promotions for the Oasis Hotel and Casino and I had been hired as his employee. Actually I called myself an Independent Contractor.

“No wonder we lost the war,” the other player at the table said, then he flicked his cards at the dealer. He looked to be younger than Mr. V. and dressed in a white shirt and tie, hair neatly combed. If they followed the typical scam, this is who would distract the dealer while Mr. V. doubled up on his bet. He looked me over from behind hooded eyes and I fiddled with my hair to be sure the little ear piece remained hidden. He noticed the movement and I thought I’d just given myself away. They’d probably start gearing up to make their exit.

Mr. V. glared at him. “You got something to say, Punk?”

“Yeah, I’m sick of hearing all you tired old vets bitch about Viet Nam.”

“You don’t know nuthin’ bout it,” Mr. V. said.

“I know you bully women, I’ve been sitting here listening to your rude remarks for ten minutes.”

“Do you know this man?” I asked the dealer who shook her head, No.

“What’s the matter with people in this city?” the younger man asked. “I don’t have to know her to put a drunk in his place. Where I come from women are respected.”

“Don’t know where you’re from, but you can go to hell, Bud,” Mr. V. spat.

“I think I’ll find a more civilized place to gamble,” he said, and began scooping up his chips.

“Hold it,” I said, and nodded to the pit boss who spoke into his walkie-talkie. “Nobody’s going anywhere. Let’s see some I. D., gentlemen,” I held out my hand. “Now!”

Two security guards approached and ordered the men to produce ID. Not surprisingly the two players said they had none. The security camera’s were taking snapshots of the men and I knew their photos would be in the black book from here on out.

“I know you’re working together,” I said.

“What are you getting at?” the younger man asked.

“I’m getting at the fact that the camera caught you,” I pointed to Mr. V., “doubling your bet whenever you got good cards. And every time he pulled that little switcheroo you,” I pointed to the younger man, “distracted the dealer from seeing it. You did a fairly good job, but our surveillance people are better.”

“I’ve got nothing to do with this guy,” the younger one said.

“That doesn’t wash,” I told him. “Our facial recognition software has identified you.” I repeated the names that had just been relayed through my earpiece. “Don Marchand and Joe Betts. Don’t come in here again,” I warned. “If you do you’ll be arrested before you take five steps onto the casino floor. Now leave and consider yourselves lucky.”

“This is crap!” yelled Mr. V. “I have rights and I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

“Suit yourself,” I said. “You want to find out what a real Las Vegas escort is all about, that’s fine with me.” Two security guards approached and latched onto each of his arms. “And I’m not talking about the babes in the escort ads.”

“Let go of me,” he protested. “I’m leaving, there’s no need for violence.” The two guards let go of him, but stayed close enough to grab him if need be.

“Stay away from here,” I warned them one last time. They kept looking over their shoulders and I hoped they’d gotten the message.

I glanced at my watch and saw officially my shift had ended. I only had to cash in my few remaining chips. My back still ached from the weight of the attacker when I’d raised and thrown him and I felt a bit shaky from the adrenaline rush the attack had given me. A nice hot shower and a change of clothes sounded very appealing.

But my plans were dashed when I spotted Hutch walking fast in my direction. I suspected he’d give me an earful about the fool I’d scuffled with on the casino floor. Hutch’s face held an intense look and his Ralph Lauren suit looked a bit rumpled. In fact, I realized it to be the same suit he’d worn yesterday—very unusual for Hutch who fancied himself a clothes horse. I certainly had to give it to him in the Reinvent Your Life and Appearance Department. Somehow, since high school, he’d managed to get those clumps of hair on either side of his head to lay flat. They had a tendency to stick up like the horns of a doe. And I suspected Lasik intervention had made it possible to clearly see those cool blue eyes once obscured by bottle lens glasses. I followed him as he made his way to a red, plush leather booth in a deserted corner of the Carousel Bar.

“What’s up, Hutch?” I asked, bracing myself for a lecture on following the rules and notifying security of any suspicious persons. Which translated into never going after anyone by myself.

To my surprise he looked furtively around the bar. “Tina,” he said in an exaggerated stage whisper as he leaned over the table. “I need your help.”

The last time Hutch had said those words to me we had been fifteen years old and he’d been babbling on about an alien invasion. When he’d shown me the photo of the—“flying saucer”—he’d happened to catch with his camera, I became hooked. Hutch really had me going for about a week. Until one day, I took out my super magnifying glass and found the word BUICK embossed in the center of the flying disk. If Hutch’s pitching arm had been a little bit stronger, his little gag might never have been discovered and the photo might have actually made its way into the newspapers.

“Oh my gosh,” I whispered back. “Don’t tell me they’ve landed. Where are they from? Pluto? Mars?”

Hutch’s cheeks bloomed a rosy pink. “Tina, I’m serious. I have a photo.”

“Ahhh, he has a photo.”

“Here,” he said, sliding a Polaroid across the table. A photo of a dead guy appeared in front of me.

“Whoa!” I flinched so hard my spine slammed into the rolled leather back of the booth. Suddenly my heart tried to pole vault over my ribs. I slammed my fist on the table. “Not funny!”

“Tina, I’m sorry. Please calm down. This came to me in the mail. I know that man and yes, he’s dead. His name’s Paul Faraday.”

I took a quick peek at the photo breathing deeply the way I’d learned to do in one of my Yoga classes. I began to feel dizzy and reminded myself not to hyperventilate and pass out.

“This photo’s for real?” I demanded to know.

Hutch gasped and I saw a tear at the corner of his eye. I remembered the time he had been attacked by three bullies on the playground. I’d managed to clobber one of them in the head with a rock, an accomplishment that had resulted in my being suspended from fifth grade for a week. Now the protective feeling I’d had for him resurfaced in full force and I took another look at the photo.

I studied Faraday’s bloody mess of a left ear and the two neat round holes in the center of his forehead. I didn’t see much blood around the obvious bullet holes but it looked as though gallons had seeped out the back of his head to form a bizarre type of halo, reminding me, oddly enough of an aura. Oh yes, what a fine aura you have Mr. Faraday, I predict there’s some trouble in your future.

A truly insane sounding giggle escaped my lips.

“Tina,” Hutch protested. “This is not funny. I know—knew this man. He’s been murdered.”

“You think?” A tear slid down Hutch’s cheek and he wiped it away with his hand.

“I got this photo in yesterday’s mail at home along with a note,” he said, holding out an envelope. “I came right back here and spent the night I felt so spooked.”

That explained his rumpled appearance. Hutch feared someone might be in his house.

“You shouldn’t be touching that!” I said sharply. “Get some baggies from the bartender.”

Hutch looked at me as though I’d lost my mind.

“Fingerprints,” I said. “It’s elementary, Watson.”

When he returned with a dozen baggies, I carefully fitted one over each hand before sliding out a folded sheet of paper. The letter, a classic anonymous communication, had the words cut from a magazine, with letters in a variety of colors and fonts.

YOU’RE NEXT. YOU MUST PAY FOR WHAT YOU DID TO MY SON.
THE FIXER.

Sliding the note and photo back into the envelope, I put it into another baggie and sealed it.

Hutch and I stared at each other for a few numbing minutes. He buried his face in his hands and took in a number of deep breaths then stood up and clasped his arms tightly across his chest in a defensive posture. Hutch looked more frightened than I’d ever seen him.

“You under control now?” I asked. “Because if you are, go ahead and spill it.”

“I knew Faraday and his wife. They were both murdered three and a half weeks ago in Laughlin. Their bodies were discovered outside the town of Laughlin in an old maintenance shack at a railroad switching yard. I went to their funerals. I just can’t believe . . .” He slammed a fist into his other palm.

“Hutch, I understand that this is terrible, okay? But you’ve got to pull yourself together. Why would someone send something like this to you? Have you done something I should know about?”

“No. I haven’t done anything. You think I know why someone would send this to me? You think I caused this?” Sitting back down in the booth he took a deep breath.

“Look,” he said. “Faraday and I knew each other through our casinos. We sponsored some events between the two hotels, since we both headed up promotions and I became friendly with him and his wife, Anna. I heard he had connections with some mob-like people. In fact, Anna’s brother is Vic Costello. You ever heard of him?”

I wondered what he meant by “mob-like” people. Were they poseurs?  Were they Mob groupies? Did they get together every Saturday afternoon and play dress up with their Uzis? And as for Vic Costello, who hadn’t heard of him?

“Yes, of course I’ve heard of him,” I said.

Costello had earned the title of being a very dangerous man. So far the Feebs had not been able to pin any of the extortion, racketeering and trafficking charges on him, a fact that hadn’t stopped the local news from endless speculation about his associations. This just made no sense.

“If Anna is this man’s sister,” I said, “why would he kill her and Paul?”

“I never thought him responsible for their deaths,” Hutch told me. “I thought maybe the killings were done by a rival mobster as a message to Costello.”

Some message. I knew Hutch had a tendency to be overly dramatic and thought that might be the case here. But then I thought about the man in the pirate costume. Had that been part of this fear campaign aimed at Hutch? Had that costumed man been trying to hurt me to make a point with Hutch that his friends were targets, too? That just didn’t seem likely. Why would a mobster go after me? I knew better than to let Hutch tweak my imagination. But what he’d been talking about sounded very serious. After all, murder is pretty hard core, especially for Hutch.

“But I guess I’m wrong,” he continued. “Because Tina, believe me, there’s no reason in the world for anyone to come after me.”

“We don’t know they will,” I assured him. “All we know is that someone’s trying to scare the hell out of you,” I nodded toward the photo and note. “Why not take it to the police?”

“Because I don’t trust them,” he said. “The day after the Faradays were killed I got summoned to the police station. They grilled me for hours. I think he might have stolen some money from the casino. They kept asking me if Faraday owed any loan sharks, or if he had a gambling problem. I got the impression the casino’s vault had been robbed. They asked me if Faraday had access to the money stored there, or even if I did.”

“And you know nothing about any of this?”

“No! He always seemed to be one hundred percent legitimate. But anyway, what are the police going to do about this?” he snatched the letter and shook it at me. “You think I can count on the cops to protect me? Or to even find out who sent this to me?”

He had a point. The photo could have been faked and the letter could be nothing more than a sore gambling loser who wanted to get Hutch on the run.

“Plus, Tina, in my job I have to remain very low key. If the reporters get a whiff of this, my name and the casino’s will be plastered all over the news and that’s bad for business. And every sicko in town will be harassing me just to get their name in print. No, no police.”

“What do you expect me to do?”

“I want you to find out who this murderer is, Tina. You can bring Kelly in once you find this Fixer person.”

Kelly is my kid brother. He’s a police officer and not exactly thrilled by my choice of career. Since I’d been working for Bernie I’d gotten in a few scuffles that caused me to seek medical attention—one, an angry cheating spouse who’d lain in wait for me one night and gave me a cracked rib. I’d given him a broken nose for his effort, but Kelly still got very upset. Our dad’s death had caused a change in Kelly and I hoped sooner more than later he’d stop thinking he needed to be my protector. He could come in handy on this case, though. That is if I decided to take it, which I probably would if Hutch kept staring at me like a lost soul.

“I can arrange for you to have the next two weeks off with pay,” he told me. “Plus I’ll pay double what your agency usually charges. Here . . .” He flipped a check out of his pocket and plopped down a draft made out for five thousand dollars.

I knew this would help the Agency and that Bernie would be pleased with my new case. My hopes were that I could do private investigating full time and dump the casino gig. This would go a long way toward that goal. A wave of happiness washed over me and then squelched out with the reminder that this could turn out to be very dangerous.

“Okay,” I decided it wouldn’t hurt to do a little checking around. I could stumble onto something serious, but felt fairly certain it would not be anything connected to Hutch. As far as I knew Hutch had neither the guts nor the inclination to get involved with anything shady or dangerous. “There’s some things I can do. We’ll drop the letter and photo off at a private lab I’ve done work with. The tech will want to take your prints for exclusion purposes. We’ll see if there are any prints on the envelope or the letter that might help us identify who sent it. But don’t count on it.”

He grabbed both of my hands in his so tight my knuckles popped. I pulled away and shook my hands. I knew Hutch felt excited and grateful but I didn’t appreciate the gesture.

“Keep your hands to yourself,” I told him in a stern voice. He babbled an apology.

I rubbed at my knuckles wondering how Hutch’s slim, soft hands could hold so much power. I also wondered at the impulsive gesture. I’d never known Hutch to lose control or be overcome with emotions. Now looking at his serene, placid expression I realized how quickly he regained control and in fact he looked a bit puzzled by my reaction.

“Come on,” I said, determining that Hutch had been stressed to the max by the Faraday’s death and the letter. I let the incident pass. “After we drop off the letter and photo we’ll go to your house and you can pack a bag. I want you to stay there at the hotel where there’s lots of security.”

Hutch nodded his head up and down like a bobber toy. “Do you have your gun?” he asked knowing I never carried a gun on the casino floor. Only the uniformed Security personnel carried a side arm.

“It’s in my car, I’ll put it in my purse when we get to your house, okay?”

“Thank you, Tina. Thank you.” On the verge of sorely trying my patience, his eyes began to tear up again. Hutch never showed this much emotion and I began to feel a growing concern for his mental health and anger that he would allow the stalker to frighten him so. I feared Hutch would have to grow a back bone and soon.

I patted his hand. “It’ll be okay, Hutch,” I said. But I felt not as certain of that as I sounded. In fact I did not feel sure at all.

***

Nancy Niles is a native Las Vegan who has traveled extensively by road from coast to coast and into Canada and Mexico.  She is a member of the Private Eye Writer’s of America and has had numerous poems published by The International Library of Poetry.  Her poem “Red Cross Thoughts,” won an Editor’s Choice Award.  Nancy is a graphic artist and worked as an extra in the movie Con Air.

“I love adventure and am always looking for new things to learn and new places to go.  I created my main character, Tina Munroe with that same spirit.”

Click here to buy: Vendetta

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