Courtney was dead and I was in Las Vegas.
A guy with a chorus line of hot-pink naked girls on a jazzy purple-and jungle-green shirt jostled past me sloshing his beer, clutching a roll of quarters, and arguing with an ugly, thin, ageless woman. She wore black stretch pants, silver heels and a blouse accented by mauve lipstick and nails. Silver earrings in the shape of skulls with red eye sockets and a silver charm bracelet dripping with bad omens completed the look.
The McCarran Airport in Las Vegas is like no other airport in the world. The sound of slot machines assaulted my senses. Cigarette smoke packed my nostrils, filtered into my brain, and began the process of wantonly killing off brain cells. Las Vegas, home of the Seven-Deadly-Sins-Advertised-And-Advocated-In-Neon-Twenty-Four-Hours-A-Day greeted me. Only the headliner this month wasn't a singer, or a show, but the Strip Stalker.
A serial killer, not a long-legged dancer.
Las Vegas is not my favorite place. And if you tough out the initial ugliness, it gets worse--not better. My eyes smarted as I walked past the slot machines to the car-rental agencies. Cigarette smoke.
Sacramento, my hometown in California's Central Valley, seemed a long way from here. A long way however you measure and span it: in miles and culture, in neon, in feathers, and sequins. And more.
I was in Vegas and Courtney was dead.
But that comes later.
Sacramento is famed for its tomatoes, camellias, and rivers, not for a high homicide rate.
That comes later too.
I picked up the car keys at the rental-car counter, although not, of course, without a hassle. The kids at the counter get younger and less experienced every year. This one didn't look old enough to drive, maybe not even to talk in complete sentences. It took me over thirty minutes to get out of there.
Outside the breeze hit me and then the sunshine. Eighty-five degrees and I was in the desert in springtime. Wonderful. I found the rental, a current cliché in beige, climbed in, powered down the windows, and threw it in gear.
I was headed for Hank's. It was that or putting his picture on a milk carton: Has anyone seen this missing boyfriend?
And I was a surprise. Two can play the What-The-Hell-Is-Going-On? and the I'm-Not-Telling game. Hank wasn't returning my phone calls or letters, so here I was. Time to find out what was going on.
I drove down a quiet street with a lot of cottonwoods, palms, and cactus in an older part of town where the houses were set on goodsized lots. There I parked in the shade of a cottonwood not far from Hank's house, a Spanish adobe with a red-tile roof. I couldn't see his car but that didn't mean anything. He kept the Mustang in the garage most of the time.
I got out, pocketed the keys, left my bag in the trunk. I opened the wrought-iron gate and entered a small courtyard enclosed by adobe walls. A fountain in the courtyard splashed and sang, the fish swam, the greenery and flowers were lush and vibrant, the cactus spiny and aloof. I caught my breath at the sight, as I always do. Springtime makes it even more beautiful.
The heavy wooden door opened into a cool interior. I didn't bother with the doorbell, just used my key. I looked around at the simple, lovely house I know almost as well as my own: whitewashed walls, worn wood floors with Mexican and Indian rugs scattered about, matter-of-fact furniture in earth tones, a stone fireplace with a bleached cow skull above the mantel, a Georgia O'Keeffe print, and handmade pottery and baskets.
I sighed and tossed my purse onto the couch, glad to be here. The house felt quiet and empty. No Hank. I went through the kitchen to the back door. Mars, Hank's black Lab, was at the door, eyes alert, ears up. When he saw me, he went into ecstasy orbit. I played outside with him for a bit and then we came in. I toyed with the idea of making a snack but didn't. I wasn't hungry enough and I was too tired. I'd gone to bed late last night, gotten up early this morning to catch a seven forty-five plane. The long hours, the tension, and worry had finally caught up with me.
I called Hank's pager number, punched in his familiar home number after the beep, and headed for the bedroom. Time to curl up, to sleep and dream quiet dreams for a change, then to wake up to Hank. Mars padded along happily at my heels. I stumbled as I walked, more exhausted than I realized, impatient to tumble into bed, smell the familiar smells of soap and Hank, and slide into oblivion. He would kiss me awake when he got home. Just like Snow White.
What was wrong with this picture?
The bedroom was dark with the curtains pulled and the shades down. And stuffy, almost claustrophobic, as though the windows hadn't been opened for some time. Odd. Hank likes fresh air and waking up with the first uncurtained light. It took my eyes a moment to adjust in the darkness.
It was going to take my mind--and my heart--a lot longer.
Someone was in the bed. I had my fairy tales mixed up. I wasn't Snow White after all, more like the three bears coming home and finding their beds occupied. Only this occupier wasn't Goldilocks.
The medium-sized shape curled up in the center of the big bed stirred slightly and made a sleepy noise. Mars butted his head under my hand, not for attention, I thought, but to remind me he was there. Moral support. I stood there, frozen as a popsicle.
On the rug beside the bed a pair of sling-back sandals lay at a jaunty and rakish angle. Panty hose trailed from the shoes to a chair where what looked like a skirt and blouse had been tossed. Flimsy, silky, satiny underwear was piled on top of that, the bra almost off the chair and dangling by a strap. Victoria's Secret underwear. Designed to charm, to seduce, to be taken off. Apparently it had lived up to the billing.
There was a lump in my throat. Mars pushed in closer but I was beyond comfort. Way beyond. The sleeping form stirred again and a bare arm partially flung back the covers, exposing the soft curve of a breast, the deeper flush of a nipple. "The Three Bears" was the wrong fairy tale too. It was "Sleeping Beauty." I tried to think of reasons why a naked woman would be in Hank's bed. I could only come up with one.
I turned and walked out. Mars followed me, whimpering softly. The phone rang as I was on my way to the door. I answered with a "hello"
that didn't sound like me at all. But that made sense. I didn't feel like me at all.
"Amber?" It was Hank's voice and he sounded puzzled.
"No. It's Kat. Amber's still asleep."
I hung up. As I picked up my purse and walked out the front door the phone started ringing. After six or seven rings it stopped. I left Mars inside. I couldn't bear to walk back through the house that was no longer my home away from home. I closed the door gently behind me. The phone started ringing again almost immediately.What's going on ?Why isn't Hank talking to me?How come he's never around and doesn't answer the phone?
I had the answer to all those questions now.
Excerpted from Alley Kat Blues by Karen Kijewski. . Excerpted by permission of Crimeline, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.