The only thing Rosie Malone hated more than a bad guy was a bad guy who couldn't tell time.
With a sigh that fell dead against the atomic heat of the Las Vegas afternoon, Rosie pushed up her sleeve and glanced at her watch. Two forty-five. If her informant didn't show up sometime soon, this just might be the shortest undercover operation in the history of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. And a stain on Rosie's perfect service record. It would also be the biggest clandestine lemon since the Bay of Pigs if she waited around, was late for rehearsal, and got fired from her showgirl job before she ever had a chance to find out what was really going on at the Silver Swan.
One more look at her watch and her mind was made up. Rosie headed toward the three cement steps that led up to the landing outside the door to the Swan's receiving area. If she was quick, she could get to the theater just in time. If she was lucky, no one would notice she was late.
Then again, if luck had anything to do with the way things were going, she wouldn't be in a back alley in the first place. She also wouldn't be dressed like a clown.
She was already trying to work out the physics of getting her two-foot-long clown shoes on the one-foot-wide steps when she heard the sharp rap of high heels against the pavement. Rosie turned just in time to see a woman round the corner. For a moment, the sight of a brunette with long, long hair and a short, short skirt took her by surprise. Then again, Chuck had never been specific. When her boss called earlier that morning and told her an informant wanted to talk, Rosie had automatically pictured a man.
Looked like she was going to need to revise her thinking.
Looked like she wasn't the only one.
Six feet away, the woman stopped and squinted through the shadows over to where Rosie was waiting. "Nobody told me nothing about a clown," she said.
"No . . . well . . ." Rosie stepped forward, closing the distance between herself and the woman. "It's kind of a long story. Are you the one who called Chuck?"
"Yeah, that was me." The woman stepped back. "But that Chuck guy, he didn't say a clown. He said a special agent and I was expecting . . . you know . . ."
"You were expecting a guy in a navy-blue suit, a white shirt, and a striped tie. That's the FBI." Her attempt at humor was met with a blank stare, and Rosie got herself back on track with a shake of her head. Fuzzy bits of her red clown wig floated up into the air and stuck to her lips, and she blew them away. "Everybody expects the guy in the suit. They're usually surprised to see me even when I'm not dressed like this." Briefly, she glanced down at the yellow shoes and the blue-and-white-striped costume that looked like a cross between a jumpsuit and a Thanksgiving Day parade balloon.
For a woman whose most daring real-life outfit was a knee-length black skirt that she wore with a tailored gray jacket when she was feeling frisky, her costume was the ultimate irony. That and the fact that she had spent the better part of her twenty-eight years yearning to blend in with the masses of everyday, vanilla-ice-cream, middle-of-the-road people she saw everywhere but in her own family.
So much for listing her fourteen years of dance lessons on her employment application for the ATF.
Rosie reached inside the neckline of her costume and pulled out the ATF ID card and badge that dangled from a chain. "Rosie," she said by way of introduction, and tucked her credentials back inside her costume. She stuck out her hand. "And you're . . ."
The woman hesitated. "I'm Neeta." She didn't take Rosie's hand and Rosie got the message. She moved back a fraction of an inch, giving Neeta the room she so obviously needed.
Neeta reached into the tiny purse she had slung over one shoulder and pulled out a pack of unfiltered Camels and a hot-pink lighter. It wasn't until she propped a cigarette between lips the same color as her lighter that Rosie realized Neeta's hands were shaking. She lit the cigarette, pulled in a deep breath, and blew out a cloud of smoke. "I . . ." The alley had an entrance at either end, and Neeta took a good, long look at both of them. "I need to talk to someone."
"Then you've come to the right place." Rosie exhaled a tiny sigh of relief. So far, so good. Clown suit or no clown suit, Neeta was comfortable enough to admit that she had something to say. Now the trick was to get her to relax enough to say it.
"You from Vegas?" Rosie asked.
Neeta rolled eyes the color of the dome of Nevada sky above their heads. "Nobody who's from here calls it Vegas. It's Las Vegas. Always Las Vegas. You'd better remember that if you're trying to fit in. You are trying to fit in, aren't you?" Neeta looked Rosie up and down. "I mean, what are you supposed to be? Some kind of freaky magic act or something?"
"It's just a disguise," Rosie explained, poking one finger at the red plastic clown nose that in these temperatures was starting to slide off her face. "You know, so no one recognizes me. I thought it would be easier, for you and for me. Just in case someone sees us together."
Neeta jumped as if she'd touched a finger to an electrical line. "You're shitting me, right? Nobody better see us. I mean, if anybody comes along and recognizes me--"
"Don't worry. No one is going to see us. That's why Chuck decided this would be a good place to meet. Nobody's around."
Neeta took a long, shaky breath and tossed her cigarette on the ground. She stubbed it out with the toe of one stiletto. "You're right. I know. I shouldn't be so jumpy. It's just that . . . I don't know . . . I know this sounds crazy . . . I mean, I know it sounds really nuts . . . but I think . . ." She glanced around. "I think someone's been following me."
Rosie's heart plummeted right along with her hopes of wrapping up this case fast so she could get back to her life as she knew it: gray suits, tidy little San Francisco apartment, and all. Too often, people who called themselves informants were nothing more than eager beavers who thought they knew more than they actually did. Or bad guys who wanted to find out how much the Feds knew about what they were up to. Sometimes they were nutcases and sometimes they were lonely and just wanted to be part of the action.
Which was Neeta?
If she were pressed for her final answer, Rosie would have gone with the nutcase theory. "Followed, huh?" She tried to sound as if she hadn't just realized that she was probably wasting her time--and risking her showgirl status--on a wild goose chase with an informant who was more paranoid than she was informed. "Why would anyone want to follow you, Neeta?"
"I told you it sounds crazy." Neeta reached for another cigarette. It took her three flicks of her lighter to get it fired up and another few long seconds of inhaling and exhaling the nasty stuff before she started talking again. "It's a feeling. You know? And this morning, there was a black SUV outside my apartment. I saw one there the other night, too. And a couple days before that. I don't know if it's the same one all the time but--"
"You see an SUV that might be the same SUV you saw before, so you call the ATF?" Her comment was a little too harsh and Rosie knew it. Chalk it up to the heat. Or the frustration of recognizing that she was getting nowhere fast. Not with Neeta. Not with her case. It might have had something to do with the sinking feeling in her stomach. Or the slow slide her plastic clown nose was making down her face. She slapped the red nose back in place and offered Neeta what she hoped looked enough like a smile of apology to pass muster.
"Not my job to editorialize," Rosie said. "Sorry. It's just that Chuck isn't exactly a forthcoming guy. He didn't explain. Neeta, why would anyone want to follow you? And what does it have to do with us?"
A tiny sob escaped Neeta's hot-pink lips. "It's complicated," she said. Whether Neeta's fears were justified or not, they were genuine enough to make her bony knees tremble and her pointy chin quiver.
Rosie's heart went out to the woman. "Maybe the best way to get it all sorted out is to start at the beginning. What do you say, Neeta? Want to try?"
Neeta sniffed and nodded.
"So . . . when did you first notice you were being followed?"
Neeta's forehead creased. Her fingers worked over the strand of beads she wore around her neck. "It wasn't right away. Not the first time I ran into him, anyway. And that was kind of like an accident, you know? I mean, I didn't even know he was in town. Last I heard, he was living in Denver with some woman who made sculptures out of beer cans. I figured he probably emptied all the cans she ever needed. It wasn't until he came over to my place and--"
"Hold on a minute!" Rosie held up one hand, stemming the tide of Neeta's story. "He who? Who are you talking about?"
Neeta let go a breath along with a mumbled curse when she realized her story had gotten away from her. "Who else?" she asked. "Gus."
"Gus?" This time Rosie was the one who felt as if she'd been plugged into an electrical outlet. A tingle of excitement scooted up her spine. Maybe Neeta wasn't so crazy after all. If she knew Gus . . .
Rosie reminded herself that she couldn't afford to blow this opportunity. She controlled her voice and her emotions. "Were you a friend of Gus Friel?"
"A friend? Hell, no!" Neeta laughed. It was a thready sound, more full of tension than amusement. "I'm . . . I was," she corrected herself, "Gus's sister."
Sister? In the mile-high stack of reports she'd read about the case, Rosie didn't recall seeing anything about Gus having a sister.
"Half sister, actually," Neeta said as if reading Rosie's mind. "Same mother. Different fathers."
Which explained why a search of Friels hadn't turned up Neeta.
"We didn't get along. But that doesn't mean I had anything to do with him getting killed." Neeta's face went pale beneath a coating of expertly applied blush, and Rosie knew she had to rush in before Neeta talked herself out of talking.
"It's all right to admit you didn't like Gus," she told Neeta. "Hey, I don't exactly see eye-to-eye with my family, either." It was the understatement of the century and hardly new when it came to the insight department, but Rosie was surprised she admitted it to a stranger. Before she could get trapped into analyzing herself, her motives, or the left-of-center free-for-all that was the Malone family, she set the thought aside and went on. "That doesn't mean I want to see any of them dead," she said, and unexpectedly, she found herself grinning. "Though there are times I wouldn't mind wringing a couple necks."
Neeta forgot her nervousness long enough to almost grin back.
At this stage of the game, almost was good enough. Rosie moved fast while she still had the advantage. "I'll bet you felt the same way," she said. "Like it was nice when Gus showed up. And nicer when he went home."
"Yeah." Neeta lifted one shoulder in a twitch of agreement. "Something like that. Only I hardly ever saw him. He told me . . ." She looked up at the sign next to the door to the receiving area. "He told me he had a job at the Silver Swan. Said it had something to do with the show. Which was a relief. I thought for sure he was going to hit me up for money."
Rosie nodded. "He was a sort of gofer who worked in the theater. You know, ran errands, helped with the sets, did some small repairs. Gus had only been at the Swan a couple months. Then he disappeared and the cops found--"
Rosie gulped down the words she'd nearly let escape. After two and a half years of working as a special agent with the ATF, she was used to the kind of mayhem she often saw out on the streets. Like law enforcement officers everywhere, she'd learned to deal. She'd cordoned off a little corner of her mind, and it was there she stored the memories she didn't dare bring out into the light of day. Which didn't mean they weren't sometimes disturbing. That sometimes when she got home at night and put away her forty-millimeter SigSauer and climbed out of her gray suit and into her fuzzy slippers and her comfy jammies, she wasn't haunted by the images of all she'd seen on her ten-hour watch.
A cop learned to build defenses, and one of those defenses was learning to talk about murder as if it were just another part of her job. That didn't mean it didn't hurt. It didn't mean the sight of dead bodies and the thought of wasted lives and the misery that crawled in the wake of every murder didn't bother her.
But referring to Gus as the decomp the cops found out in Red Rock Canyon was probably just a little too flip. Especially when that decomp was Neeta's half brother.
"The cops found him out in Red Rock Canyon," Rosie said, firmly ignoring the decomp part. "They identified him by the tattoo of a snake on his right forearm." Gus Friel's tattoo was another piece of the puzzle that had forced Rosie out of her San Francisco comfort zone and into the sequined and feather fantasy that was Sin City.
Three months before Gus was found melted by the desert sun and half-eaten by whatever creatures lived over in Red Rock Canyon to the west of the city, a fourteen-year-old named Jake was arrested for holding up a local convenience store. He wasn't the youngest armed robber any of them had ever seen. Sad but true. What was unusual about Jake's crime was the weapon he'd used to carry it out. His gun was a nine-millimeter 9A-91, a small-size assault rifle capable of shooting through a steel plate. It could be equipped with a silencer, optical night sights, and even an underbarrel grenade launcher. Chances were, Jake had no idea what kind of firepower he was packing, or that the 9A-91 was produced in Russia especially for the MVD, the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs.From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Guilty Little Secrets by Connie Lane. Copyright © 2003 by Connie Lane. Excerpted by permission of Loveswept, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.