I awoke the next day with dream remnants of huge stone gargoyles-turned-stalkers and a massive dragon hovering overhead while I ran for my life down the majestically lit but empty Las Vegas Strip.
Ah. A refreshing change from the usual alien abduction scenario. Scones and tea must be good for me.
I decided to go with the flow, so brunched while skimming Caressa Teagarden's quaint book from the late nineteenth century. It concentrated on the purpose and art of the carved gargoyles on medieval churches. Jean-Christophe l'Argent only got one mention, but as the master carver of all time.
The Internet was even less forthcoming. L'Argent meant "silver" or "silvery" in French surname traditions, but the name was rare and usually translated to Largent in English. However, I was happily browsing dragons and gargoyles and coming up with lots of lovely graphics, if no useful information, when my cell phone rang.
"I'm always calling you about police matters and appointments," Ric's welcome voice said, "when all I want to talk to you about is our investigations of the very private and personal sort."
"Why not," I asked, "when we can make progress on both fronts at once?"
"True. I'm just checking if tomorrow is okay for your jaunt to the Crimes Against Persons interview."
"Sure. Book me, Dano," I said, paraphrasing the Hawaii Five-O catch phrase. "Speaking of which, I had an intriguing interview myself yesterday."
"An ancient film star who's lingering on at the Sunset City west of town. Caressa Teagarden. Started in the Silents. Knew some of the Vegas CinSims personally."
"Never heard of her. What's the connection?"
"Hard to say. It was just weird. I was supposed to interview her at the Wichita Sunset City and she had supposedly canceled her contract, i.e., died, but now she's showed up here. Even before I did."
"That Sunset City setup is creepy, anyway."
I laughed. "More than CinSims? Vegas makes you pretty blas��, Montoya."
"But you don't. I'd suggest lunch, but I've got some Federates from the border coming up to consult. It's bloody hell down there between the drug lord wars, the zombie smugglers, and ordinary illegal aliens."
"At least I know you're here in town and safe."
We closed the call on murmured little nothings, neither wanting to hang up, promising to check in with each other when we could.
Well, I would be in town, but maybe not as "safe" as Ric would think or like.
If I wanted to know more about a long-dead teen vampire corpse in Sunset Park there was one source I dare not omit.
Just getting dressed to go to the Inferno that evening was a chore. My silver familiar kept flitting over my body, becoming a Thai dancing girl's slave bracelet one moment, a sleek designer torque around my neck another, then a Mexican hair comb in the shape of a jaguar.
I reached up to tear the last form from my hair, but it eeled away from my touch. I never wore the sides of my hair pushed up. The 1940s coiffure reminded me of the Black Dahlia, the era's most famous female victim and, now, of Cicereau's poor dead daughter. So the moveable silver thread looped around my neck into the form of a narrow snake chain, produced a smooth bezel and added a large faceted blue topaz.
Cool. I decided to take the hint and wear my forties white linen suit with shoulder pads big enough for a modern-day linebacker. Girly and gritty. It was something Ingrid Bergman might have worn in Notorious or Casablanca to meet a cynical Cary Grant or a bitter Humphrey Bogart. But the man I was going to see about a corpse was neither of those things. He was just Hell on wheels.
I ankled into the Inferno Bar on my white leather platform sandals with the, well, ankle straps. The area was awash with so many CinSymbiants-as devoted CinSim fans were called-in vintage drag it was hard to tell who were the real Cinema Simulacrums. CinSymbs dolled themselves up as their favorite CinSims, white-face and all. They gathered in droves here in the evenings, before the Seven Deadly Sins performed.
I wended my way past Clark Gable from Mogambo chatting with a blond Vivien Leigh from A Streetcar Named Desire. A CinSymb could pay personal tribute to any actor/role he or she wished. This Gable was short and stout and Vivien weighed two hundred pounds, but their costumes were perfectly in period and they looked quite dashing. The sound system was playing Big Band music that covered most of the eras represented. "In the Mood" was one of my favorites and I couldn't help swaying my hips to the choo-choo motion that made Swing king for a couple decades.
"Wheuuut-woo," Nick Charles wolf-whistled as I approached, turning to pull the white gardenia boutonniere in his dark tux jacket free and tuck it behind one of my ears. '"Sweet Leilani', one of Bing's best," he said, citing a Hawaiian ballad from his thirties' heyday.
"Think Snow will dig this outfit?" I asked him, taking a red-enameled steel barstool.
"White? What's not to like?" Nicky snapped his off-white fingers. The barman produced the cocktail of my invention, an Albino Vampire, in a minute flat.
"I need to talk to the boss," I said after the first, long, luscious sip. Damn, this was good! Too bad you can't copyright drinks.
"With you in that outfit, he'll be here before you can kiss that martini glass rim goodbye," Nicky warned. "Nora will be chartreuse with envy if she hears about this."
"Are you flirting with the customers, as ordered?" a deep baritone asked behind us. "Drink up, Delilah," it added, lowering a register into a soft purr. "I want to dance with you."
Why did that voice resonate in the pit of my stomach? Why did I know it wasn't addressing Nick Charles after the first question? Maybe because he was a Vegas entertainment icon or maybe because I was nervous or maybe because it came from the pit of Hell.
I took a long, long swallow of the vodka and white-chocolate-liqueur blend, then turned, ready to face the music and dance.
Snow wasn't performing until later. No white leather catsuit open from throat to navel. He was wearing a white silk Italian suit with white ostrich cowboy boots, only the roach-stomping pointed toe-tips visible, a white poet's shirt open at the neck to show off the pink ruby dog collar around his albino-white neck, and the usual black sunglasses.
I stood. Ric was tall but Snow was taller. Ric could salsa with the werewolves, but Snow could rock with the Seven Deadly Sins.
He held out his hands and I moved into his ballroom embrace.
How could so much white be so hot? White-hot maybe?
I really had no rhythm and I couldn't dance. Ric overcame that with his sexy human, Hispanic warmth. Snow overcame everything with his icy unhuman perfection and command. He led a dance partner like a cobra, fast, sleek, sinister.
I could feel his hands sucking the warmth and courage from my body as we foxtrotted around the dance floor, alone in the crowd. For such a high-profile personality, an international rock star and Vegas kingpin, Snow could become oddly invisible to the mob at will.
He pressed me close, moved his hand from my shoulder blade to my lower back, took the other to cradle it on his shoulder, then tangoed me like a puppet over the floor. I felt like a girl in a Parisian Apache dance, slung from pillar to post, winning the battle of the sexes through submission.
Snow had made a career on being ridiculously sexy. I had made a career on being totally impervious to sexy ploys. I was the objective reporter. Incorruptible. He was corruption personified. I knew he wanted me, but he wanted me ruined. That would never happen.
He stopped the sweep around the dance floor, released me. "You are really as tempting as an Albino Vampire in that ensemble. Is that why you wore it? What do you want from me?"
I quoted Patrick McGoohan as Number Six in The Prisoner. (I'm a vintage film junkie, occasionally even if it was on TV in color.) "Information," I intoned.
"Always your petty self-serving goals. Always nothing really interesting."
"You have got me so wrong, Snow. Self-serving is your modus operandi. What I want to know might help you and your Vegas empire. Interested now?"
"In what you're up to? Always."
"In what I know or don't know. Always."
He shrugged. It only enhanced the lines of his three-thousand-dollar suit. Armani, I bet. "The office, I suppose. You're so tediously dedicated to business rather than pleasure."
"Here," I retorted, "business is pleasure, and damnation."
His fingertip touched the blue topaz stone nestled on my breastbone. It grew suddenly warm, as did his tone. "You've been plumbing the depths of personal pleasure lately. It makes you very…persuasive. Come to my office, Delilah, where we can talk in private."
As if we weren't in some bizarre bubble when he moved through the public places of his empire… I followed in his wake, feeling a little like Captain Ahab. "Whales" were big spenders and gamblers in Vegas. I bet that Snow was a "great white whale" when it came to the top rank of hotel-casino owners.
At the door to his office he hesitated to allow me to enter first. As I did, he plucked the gardenia from my hair, inhaled its heavy, sweet aroma, and then put it in the buttonhole of my suit lapel. It had become a midnight-red rose wafting almost narcoleptic scent.
He sat in the white leather executive chair behind the desk, tented his long white fingers and let me gaze at my tiny reflection in those jet-black lenses.
I felt like a suspect up before a homicide cop. There were those "depths of personal pleasure" I'd been delving with Ric in the presence of Snow's lock of long white hair turned body jewelry, turned snitch. There was my secret plan to attempt to reform hooked Snow groupies into free women I hadn't yet done anything about. Soon.
I sighed as if bored and sat on one of the white leather and steel chairs facing his desk.
"I'm investigating the identity of the male skeleton found in the Sunset Park grave."
There was a long silence.
Snow's pale lips smiled. "For whom else?"
This time I shrugged. I doubted it did for my vintage suit what a shrug did for his Armani. Most easily available vintage clothes that survived were ordinary ready-made. A working girl couldn't afford the rest.
"There are…other interested parties," I conceded, rather pleased to have some cards to put on the invisible table between us.
That had increased his interest. "Yes." I didn't often have a chance to sound smug in front of Snow. I kept Night wine's and Hughes's names to myself.
"You're not saying who."
"No. I'm just saying that if you prove to be a reliable source, I might tell you the outcome."
He laughed as he swung the expensive chair from side to side. "I have my own very special and rather creepy operatives I could send to your bedroom by night to extract anything I want from your conscious or unconscious mind."
"Don't doubt it. My dog would eviscerate whatever it was, human or unhuman."
"Don't doubt it. You have interesting allies. But I have more. So, quit playing around and tell me what you know."
"Apparently your omnipotent allies haven't found this out yet," I said.
"Omnipotence is not a fail-safe substitute for one old-fashioned investigative reporter with the information-gathering instincts of Hell's pit-bull."
I kept still. Was that a compliment? I kinda thought it was and it wasn't even sexist. Must be this Katharine Hepburn power suit. She was a stainless steel hellion.
"The rumor is you're a vamp."
"The rumor is wrong."
"Then you wouldn't have any insight on who the vampire was who shared the Sunset Park grave with Cicereau's daughter."
"Cicereau's daughter?" He sounded impressed. "So that's who it was. Obviously Daddy Cesar didn't tell you that. Who did?"
"My sources are protected."
I shrugged. Damn, I liked the effect of my buttressed shoulders. I felt like I could knock a lumberjack off a log with them.
Apparently they impressed Snow. He capitulated and answered, in depth.
"No. I don't know what vampire led young Miss Cicereau to bliss and butchery," he said reluctantly. "Vampires were keeping a low profile then. They'd let Cicereau and his werewolf pack get the jump on them. The Gallic werewolves had come to raw western America with Folies-Berg��re ambitions and lots of francs. That attracted some of the more powerful Parisian vampires over too, and they had big dreams for a stunning hotel called the Inferno. The French vampires were used to a society where werewolves had been vigorously persecuted since medieval times and the vamps were civic heroes."
"Vampires were French heroes?"
"Who do you think had the ears-and probably throats-of Marat, Robespierre and Danton during the French Revolution, the bloodiest political rebellion in relatively modern Western civilization history? Who encouraged the reign of Queen Guillotine and the rain of severed heads into baskets while truncated necks shot out gouts of blood? Madame Defarge was Reine of the Cite…and the vampires. Her famed knitting needles made fast work of any aristocrat who didn't die quickly enough. They called her needles the Fer-de-Lance, iron spear, after the venomous pit vipers of the south and central Americas.
"It was a world triumph for the blood-based breed. They almost got one of theirs elected president of the French Assembly. They still mourn their loss of influence in recent centuries."
I sat back, silent in the face of Snow's convincing description of events two hundred and twenty years ago. His tales of French supernatural centuries after Caressa Teagarden's fairy tales of devouring dragons in the river Seine jibed more than was comfortable for me.
Snow lifted a hand. I sensed something behind me and turned. His security chief, Grizelle, was waiting with a small silver tray. Two Albino Vampire cocktails sat upon it.
She did the waitress dip. This six-foot-plus tall supermodel-type with a tiger-stripe pattern in her silken black skin who could shape-shift into a six-hundred-pound white tiger did the waitress dip to set the glasses on Snow's desk.
"Thank you, Grizelle." He lifted his glass and held it out for a toast. "If you were a wine, Miss Street, I would characterize you as 'cheeky and amusing, but also full-bodied and effervescent, to be drunk quickly, before it spoils'."
Well! "Those who can, invent. Those who can't, steal."
I referenced the yummy white chocolate Albino Vampire cocktail I'd created at his Inferno Bar on a whim to annoy him. The bastard had simply made it the house drink, charged a mint for it, and profited from my invention.
"I'd be willing to pay you a royalty for the drink, but it wouldn't be as lucrative as what Nightwine would give you for Lilith's onscreen use."
I had been about to sip my drink but stopped before I choked. "You know about his hopes for Lilith?"
"Lilith is a valuable commodity in this town, thanks to his forensics show empire. I know about everything of value and the value of everything."
"She is a human being."
He shrugged. "That's what you want to think. She's supposedly dead. As far as we know. That makes her no less valuable. Even more so. "
"As far as 'we' know?"
"Ask Nightwine to let you attend the filming of a CSI autopsy. They're always done on a strictly closed set. It'd be interesting to know if he'd let you see the process."
"I've already visited the city morgue, on your recommendation. Maybe I should ask to be a background autopsy tech on the show." I thought my voice had been scorching with sarcasm.
"Not a bad idea." Snow was too obviously enjoying a long swallow of my creamy cocktail. Vampires didn't drink "vine," but neither should they suck down white liqueur cocktails. "Nightwine would love to titillate his enraptured audience with those bright baby blues you share with Lilith glimpsed, say, behind the Plexiglas of a safety shield. Rumors would run wild that Lilith still… haunts… the autopsy set. Million-dollar publicity for the show, refreshes an aging concept. Brilliant! You can give Nightwine the idea and claim it was yours, a bit of return on the Albino Vampire. He'd even pay you for it if you play it right."
I knew better than to drop my jaw. Snow thought just like the ghoul I worked for.
Still, it was a good idea. I'd have a chance to get to know-and probe-the film crew about Lilith's turn on the steel table, and find out if there was any possibility she was alive then. And if she might still be.
I really didn't like the fact she was putting on a show in my mirror. Maybe I was wrong in concluding that only dead acts performed there. So I played my unexpected ace, something I'd concluded about Lilith.
"You knew Lilith before she was on CSI Las Vegas, before she was officially 'dead' or famous."
"Why would you say that?"
"The first time I visited the Inferno, you came up and swept me onto the dance floor. I don't dance."
"You do in my arms and maybe Montoya's."
I ignored his attempt to link himself and Ric. "You also said you'd been waiting for me."
"It's a line, haven't you heard? Maybe you didn't, in Kansas."
"You left out you'd been waiting for me 'all of my life'."
"Maybe it would be impossible for me to wait for you all of my life."
"What? Poor mortal me? You're right about that and I wouldn't wait a New York minute for you. So quit the song and dance, Snow. You're good at it, but I'm good at detecting lies and evasions. You thought I was Lilith. You already knew her, but you hid that fact from me. Why?"
"I hide a lot of things from you. Why shouldn't I?"
That I believed. "Guess I'll just have to find them all out."
"Break a leg," he said cordially. "Anything else I can do for you today, Delilah?"
I'd barely tasted my Albino Vampire and his glass was drained. I wasn't going to be shuffled off, so I leaned back, crossed my legs, and sipped my drink that he earned the money for.
"You don't seem surprised by my mentioning Lilith's possible survival, Snow. She was presumed dead when you laid that line on me."
"I never believe any presumptions of innocence or death in this town, not even my own. What I believe about Lilith's state of being is moot, however. Her only filmed presence was, alas, as one dead. Not that this is a fatal problem. If she was in CinSim form, I'd lease her for the Inferno. I have a private club on the Lower Circles where she'd be in red-hot demand."
Every word of his speech seemed to indicate that his eyes were following every last detail of my form and face for its reproduction of Lilith. His tone was seductive, possessive, as if he owned me because he had seen and knew of, or possibly desired, her. Or had had her, in the Biblical sense.
"Lease her? Or would you buy her, at auction, like a slave?" I asked, bluntly.
He drew back a bit, as if slapped. As I had intended. I wasn't a Snow groupie to be seduced by some sexy sweet talk. I had a lot of Our Lady of the Lake Convent School backbone.
Snow lifted a pale eyebrow over the smooth black top of his sunglasses. Mr. Spock on MTV. "Now why would you think… one could buy… CinSims… when leasing them…is so much more lucrative… for the parent conglomerate, ISFX-MS, Industrial Special Effects and Magic Show?"
Snow was acting far too easy-going at the moment. And if he thought aiming his sunglasses at my crossed legs was going to make me jump up like Miss Muffett and shriek away, he was in the wrong nursery rhyme.
I recrossed them, higher, and sipped more slowly. Hello, Sharon Stone. Not a vintage film shtick, but effective.
A smile visited his pale lips and settled in. He lifted his martini glass, full again.
Parlor tricks that Madrigal at the Gehenna could do with his eyes closed would not disturb me, I told myself.
"I'm not here about Lilith, poor self-destructive girl," I said. "I'm here about the boy. The young man in the Sunset Park grave. I thought you might know something. Apparently not."
I drained my Albino Vampire in one long swallow and stood.
Now he was left holding the drink and being run out on.
"I have no clue," he admitted, his tone suddenly direct, flat. "I'm counting on you to find one. Call me your first client in Las Vegas."
"On the same case? You forget I've had two others ask me to solve the riddle. Or don't they count?"
"So be it. I'll pay you well for your results anyway."
"In Albino Vampires?"
"They're on the house now, for you."
"For how long?"
"Forever, Miss Delilah Street. Forever."
Okay, that was truly creepy. What was creepiest was that I was sure he meant that. Did he mean that I was immortal? Or that he was? I knew from experience that Snow's afterthought gifts had bite.
What it did mean for now was that I could collect three fees if I solved the identity riddle.
I doubted that was ethical, even here.
Don't sweat it, Irma advised me as we left, sailing under Grizelle's short supermodel nose as if her impressive form was not even there. This town was always the capital of the con game they call Three-card Monte. We deserve three times what any one person would give us. We are a class act. And we are double trouble."
Or were we a triple threat? Maybe, if I could find Lilith alive somewhere, we would be someday.
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