User:Fish/Mad Hatters and Musical Chairs
Mad Hatters and Musical Chairs
|This story is a work in progress.|
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A mile away from the frenetic neon bustle of the Las Vegas Strip is a hotel of modest means and unimpressive décor. Unlike its competitors — Excalibur, Caesar's Palace, Luxor — it has no need for outré architecture or boastful larger-than-life themes of legend, wealth or immortality. No bold display advertises its slot machine percentages, no staged spectacle of dancing girls lures customers to its rooms. This demure hotel existed in the midst of Sin City, and despite skyrocketing property values it was never razed to make room for anything newer, grander, or more profitable. It simply continued.
Once it had served its function as a destination for newlyweds and honeymooners. The hotel had previously given visitors the impression of living inside a giant, gaudy, ten-story Valentine's Day card: pink and white and red, festooned with images of cherubim, ribbons, hearts, and lace. Of its two hundred guest rooms, sixty were honeymoon suites; of its twenty bungalows, one was fashioned into the shape of a chapel. Couples arrived in Las Vegas prepared to tie the knot and, by the grace of Clark County's expedited marriage license program, the couples could be wed with a minimum of paperwork and delay.
A profitable decade passed, then the profits peaked. Traffic fell for several consecutive years, possibly due to the ever-increasing gravitational power of the nearby Strip. It was widely thought that the Honeymoon Hotel could not survive much longer on its own, and its staff of over a hundred would be let go. Some of the staff suggested that the hotel had been doomed by its poor location. Others with more tenure hinted that there was a murdered bride and groom that haunted the halls. It may have been its own institutional inertia that hurt the hotel the most: ten-year-old décor positively antique by Las Vegas standards, tired theme, anemic gaming tables, uninspired advertising.
At last, the Honeymoon Hotel was sold to new business interests. After extensive consultation it became clear that its two artificial lakes and one indoor-outdoor swimming pool would be costly to remove. The landlord chose instead to remodel its outdated interior design with its eye-searing pinks and reds. He was from Montana, and he enjoyed his time in the warmth of Nevada, so he chose a tropical theme — pedestrian in many ways, but so was he: stolid, unimaginative, businesslike, keen on profit and efficiency, short on vision. The romantic wallpaper was painted over in more modern teal and sand and mango; hearts and ribbons and cherubim were removed and replaced with palm trees, seashells, and hula girls. The two artificial lakes, one on each side of the hotel, were lined with palm trees. By the indoor-outdoor pool a thatched-roof cabana bar was erected. The chapel, which commanded the best view of the larger of the two lakes, was converted to office space for the landlord. It was renamed The Lakes Hotel, and couples no longer flocked to its rooms to become united in happy matrimony.
Deep down below layers of teal and mango paint, behind a tropical facade, the hotel was never truly remodeled. The walls remembered the images of Cupid's arrows, the rooms remembered the long-ago echoes of the wicked laughter of newly minted brides. If hotels could speak, this one might suggest that it missed the old days.
At ten minutes before six in the morning, Elliott Ketner woke to the insistent sound of knocking at his door. He stared for a moment at the glowing indigo digits of the clock-radio at his bedside without comprehending them, still thick-headed with sleep. Elliott had gone off-shift from the bar at three. Six o'clock was far too early to be awake.
It slowly registered that he had heard knocking. To the darkened, silent room he called out, “Yes?”
“Elliott, it's you,” said a voice he thought he recognized. “Thank God. You sleep hard, boy! Can I open up?”
Open up? Elliott couldn't remember at this hour who might sound so familiar and yet ask permission. “Yeah, sure,” he said, kicking away the blankets and pushing himself clumsily into an upright position. “Come on in.”
The door creaked open. Elliott looked stupidly at the feminine silhouette framed against the bright hall light, and recalled the sound of the voice. “Brett?” he asked, surprised, as he fumbled for the corner of a discarded blanket to cover his midsection. “Is that you?”
The woman in the doorway seemed to glance down at herself. “Yeah,” she drawled. “Last I looked.”
“What's up? Why so early?” Elliott wanted to know. “Something wrong.”
Her expression could not be read against the light, but she put a hand on her hip and threw a lilt of sarcasm into her tone. “No, nothing. You know Jeremy?”
“At the bar? Yeah.” Elliott rubbed his eyes. “He works afternoons.”
“Not any more,” Brett said. “It's all you now, boy.”
In the dark, Elliott smiled through a yawn. “Jeremy's gone? Good for him. He meet somebody?”
The shadow nodded.
“I didn't see,” the shadow said. “But Ed tells me you're working his shifts, now. Set your alarm. You start at noon.”
“So why'd you wake me up at six?”
“I'm switching to the front desk,” Brett said. “Reception.”
“And you're training me.”
“Oh.” There wasn't much to say to that. Turnover was both slow and sudden at The Lakes Hotel, and it meant every member of the staff had to be prepared to train the others at any time. “What time do you start?”
“As soon as you get dressed,” the shadow said shortly. “Come on, get showered. I don't want you to make me late.”
A♥ 7♥ J♦ A♠ Q♣
Brett Noble was a tiny, slender Japanese woman of about thirty years of age: intelligent, quick-witted, and reserved, with a healthy interest in sex. Brett always ate properly, focusing on vegetables and low-fat, low-carb meals in the Lakes Restaurant. Elliott had seen her on many mornings swimming laps in the indoor-outdoor pool. For her first day at the reception desk, she wore a practical and stylish yellow pencil skirt and a silky floral blouse. She really was lovely, Elliott admitted. He had known her now for six months, and he was growing rather fond of her. It was such a shame that they were co-workers. A relationship would never work between them.
By nine in the morning, Brett was beginning to understand the responsibilities of her new position. She was an adept learner, and she had been at the Lakes Hotel for six months, so the duties weren't entirely unfamiliar. Elliott actually found himself admiring her as she stood behind the counter in the lobby, her lips pursed and her brow creased. She studied the weekend reservations with a charming expression of intense thought, tucking dark stray hairs behind one ear absently.
When the lesbian couple came into the lobby at quarter after nine, Elliott could see them checking her out. The two women gave him a single, dismissive look, then returned their attention to Brett, who gave them her best smile and greeted them with a cheery “Hi! Welcome to The Lakes Hotel. How can I help you?”
The older of the women, a tall mixed-race black woman with closely cropped hair, pulled a wallet out of her pocket on a long metal chain while her partner brought the baggage to the counter. She was probably forty, with an unattractive asymmetry of freckles, and wore no makeup. Elliott had little impression of the shape of her body, because she wore a burnt orange crew-neck shirt beneath a shapelessly severe sports jacket. She slipped out her identification. “I'm Maris Barnhardt,” she said, her voice a low velvet purr. “I have reservations here that were placed online through Peak Performance Technical. Here is the printout,” she added, producing a document from her inside pocket folded precisely into thirds.
“Thank you, Ms. Barnhardt,” Brett said, taking the document and examining the reservation computer. “I have your reservation here for Room 740, single occupancy. Will your friend be needing a second room?”
“No, we'll stay in the same room,” Maris responded with a touch of impatience. “She's my partner.”
Brett didn't bat an eyelash. “The single-occupancy rooms are somewhat small, Ms. Barnhardt,” she said delicately. “Would you like to upgrade your room to a double?”
The other woman at the counter bristled. “Are you suggesting I'm fat?” she demanded.
Elliott could see that the honest answer would not do: she was indeed overweight, a round-faced Chinese woman no more than thirty, with short, spiked hair and a collection of piercings. The tattoo of a fish swirling in a spiral could be seen on the bare skin of her meaty upper arm.
“No, ma'am,” Brett said, and she artfully lowered her voice. “Between you and me, those beds are really tiny. It's a single. You and she wouldn't be very comfortable in one of them together.”
The Chinese woman chewed on that response, looking over Brett with some distaste. Brett was the model of elegant Asian beauty, and this woman was everything Brett was not: pale, thick-bodied, dressed unflatteringly. Unable to find a way to object, the woman simply harumphed to her partner. “What do you think? Will the company spring for an upgrade?”
“Of course they will, Honor,” the black woman replied blandly. “I'll see that they do.”
“And if they don't?”
She turned to her partner. “Peak Performance won't be around much longer to complain about it, will they? I don't think the company is going to last the year. We're doing our own expense reports. Nobody is going to be paying attention to the cost of a hotel room. The only reason they're still sending me to this seminar is that they already paid the registration fees up front.” Maris smiled faintly. “And as long as they're paying, I'm going.”
“Might as well make the most of it,” Elliott said lightly, but the two women ignored him.
“I can upgrade you to a lakeside bungalow for another hundred and twenty dollars,” Brett announced, tapping at the computer, “Or I can also get you into a double-occupancy room for fifty.”
“No, you can't,” Maris said calmly.
“I'm sorry?” Brett asked.
“I'm quite sure I just heard you say there weren't any doubles,” the black woman said, unruffled. “A bungalow will just have to do, won't it, Honor?”
Her partner grinned a nicotine grin. “We'll just have to make do,” Honor said, and glanced at Brett. “Double bed?”
“King size,” Brett assured them, and handed across a digitally encoded credit-card key. “You're in B12. Go out the doors you came in, turn left and go around the building. When you cross the footbridge you'll be at B10, so just keep on going until you hit B12.”
“Or you might take a brochure,” Elliott added, offering one. “It's got a map, the history of the hotel, the restaurant hours, and the number for room service.”
Maris Barnhardt took the brochure from Elliott with a perfunctory thanks, and thanked Brett more effusively for her help.
“Well,” Elliott said after the two women had left with their luggage in tow. “They're going to be interesting. They hardly even knew I was here.”
“They must not like men very much,” Brett said smugly.
“Well,” Elliott said with a shrug, “I hope they're flexible on that.”
Business was slow for a Thursday. Brett listened carefully as Elliott explained everything that came to mind about working the reception counter. It had been months since he had worked at this position. In the intervening time, Elliott had been promoted into positions with more guest exposure, as the Hotel management called it. Brett had little trouble picking up on the basics, although at times she seemed pensive and distracted.
“Still taking it all in?” Elliott asked her gently at one point.
Brett blew out an impatient breath. “I had a date this afternoon. I had to cancel.”
She sighed. “Yeah. I don't think it would've worked out, but...” Brett trailed off, lost in thought for a moment, then stabbed viciously at the registration computer. “Damn it, this just pisses me off, you know? One of these days I'm going to just quit. Just walk out of this job and never look back.”
“And leave all this behind?” Elliot said dryly.
Brett gave him a tired smile. “Yeah. There's nothing keeping me here. Six months, down the drain. You've been here a year? I don't know how you do it.”
Elliott put a hand on her arm, and found she was shaking silently. “One more weekend,” he suggested.
She looked at him, a question in her gaze. “Is that how you do it? One weekend at a time?”
“No,” Elliott said, and shrugged again. “To tell you the truth, I—”
The electronic bell rang as the front door opened. Elliott saw an frail old woman of at least seventy struggle to handle the door, a battered blue suitcase wheeling behind her, and a cane. She moved with the slow precision common to the elderly and the injured, as if one leg, or one hip, caused her difficulty. Her faded blue sun dress flapped around her scrawny legs in the Nevada wind.
“Let me help you,” Elliott offered immediately, stepping around the counter.
As he took both the door and suitcase in hand, the old woman offered him a brittle smile. “That's nice of you. What's your name? Are you the bellhop?”
“Actually, I'm the bartender, miss,” Elliott said, letting the pneumatic door close behind her. “My name is Elliott.”
“I'm Mrs. Abrams,” she said.
—and there was a distant little twinkle in her blue eyes, as if she were hoping that would be enough. As if she secretly wanted Elliott to fill in the missing information. He took in her face: lined, yes, but shaped well, and somehow familiar.
Then it dawned on him. “Abrams?” Elliott asked. “As in Ursula Abrams?”
The twinkle returned to her eye, and she smiled. “I'm surprised you recognized me, Elliott. And pleased.”
“Of course I recognized you,” he said, grinning broadly. “You're one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood history!”
“Not any more, dear,” Ursula sighed. “But thank you anyway.”
“Brett, do you know who this is?” Elliott asked the reception clerk excitedly. “This is Ursula Abrams. She was a huge Hollywood star during the 1950s. Remember the movie The Sultan's Favorite Wife? This is that actress!”
“Really?” Brett asked with minimum polite interest.
“She was making movies about the same time as Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield,” Elliott went on, bringing the luggage to the counter. “She did this great movie with Tony Curtis, what was it? Get Along Joe.”
“Jayne Mansfield,” Brett said, frowning. “Was she the one with the big—” She made two cupping gestures over her own chest. “Whatever happened to her?”
Ursula spoke up in a tremulous voice, emphasizing her recollection with a gnarled finger. “Automobile accident. She was killed. Nineteen sixty-seven. Two years before my accident. And five years after Marilyn.”
Elliott looked at the aging starlet in sudden realization. “Is that why you never made any movies after that?”
Her smile was melancholy. “I made movies after that, dear, but nobody saw them. I was too old, then. Nearly forty I was, when I could walk again.” She twisted her cane on the hotel's seashell carpet. “The world cared about dead Marilyn and dead Jayne more than old living Ursula with a broken leg and a funny walk. I still have the scars on my hip.” She sighed again. “And of course by then it was Raquel Welch. She was more your time,” she added to Elliott with a wink.
He smiled, and didn't mention that Raquel stopped being a sex symbol the year he had been born. What he said was, “She never had your screen presence.”
“Oh!” Ursula said, delighted, and brushed away his compliment. “I didn't do that much. I had a good run for my time.”
“What have you been working on lately?” Elliott asked, as Brett found Ursula's reservations in the computer.
“Just blowing around this town like an old ghost,” she said wryly. “That's what you get when you waste your youth on movies. You end up old like me, without any kids to spoil.”
Elliott nodded. “Well, come visit me in the bar in the afternoon and evening. We'll talk about movies, if you like.”
Ursula took his wrist in her hand warmly. “I would like that.”
The two hotel employees watched as Ursula Abrams left the lobby in the company of one of the new bellhops, Kelly or Kenny or whatever his name was.
“Well, Brett,” Elliott said expansively, “it's time I got ready for work. Good luck here. I think you've got the hang of it.”
Brett shrewdly watched her friend's gaze return back to the hallway, where Kenny or Kelly was leading their new guest to her room. She nodded in that direction. “Think it's her?”
Elliott shrugged. “You never know in this place.”
A♠ 4♦ Joker 6♦
The indoor bar at the Lakes Hotel was named, somewhat unimaginatively, the Sand Bar. It followed the same tropical theme that the new owner — the staff considered him the new owner although he had already been here seven years — had dictated. The walls were painted in vivid sea-green and coral, festooned with marine life both sculpted and painted. Two life-size brass mermaids flanked the entrance. A second bar had been added in the cabana outdoors to service the guests at poolside, but the owner, having exhausted his creativity, neglected to name it.
Elliott had worked the bar for a few months now, having recently received his bar tending license. It was an excellent place to meet people, to see whether they were enjoying themselves, and to find out which rooms the cute ones were staying in.
On a Thursday afternoon, the bar was empty. Only the most die-hard of regulars were here. The blue LEDs on the jukebox flickered unseen as it played Alannah Myles quietly to itself.
One of his regulars brushed aside the beaded curtain in the doorway and entered the bar. He was an older black gentlemen named Hyatt, and he walked with a certain arthritic stiffness, tapping his fingers against his thigh to music in his head.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Hyatt,” Elliott called to him. “What can I get for you this afternoon?”
“You got anything sour?” Hyatt asked, slipping onto a barstool. “I got the taste for something lemony.”
“Gin and tonic?”
Hyatt made a face, rubbing the white stubbles on his chin. “No, I reckon I had one too many o' them in my life. B'sides, gin and tonic always makes me lose bad at the craps table.”
He shook his head. “Don't much care for vodka. Maybe something with lime, that'd be good.”
“Lime, and sour,” Elliott mused.
“Something different,” Hyatt said. “I gotta do somethin' to change my luck.”
“How about a Chocolate Soldier?”
Hyatt chuckled. “Sounds like me. Chocolate Soldier. What's in it?”
“How's gin, vermouth, and lime juice strike you?”
Hyatt tapped the counter with one decisive finger. “That's the stuff right there. Shoot me one of those.”
Elliott proceeded to mix the drink into a shaker, juicing half a lime industriously. Hyatt jostled his arm.
“You didn't ask for my ID,” he said, grinning. “You breakin' the law.”
“You're a regular, Mr. Hyatt,” Elliott said mildly. “We all know you.”
“If I was still on the force I'd be bringing your ass in,” Hyatt said, amused. He waved a hand magnanimously. “I won't bust you this time. But I figured you'd wanna see.”
Hyatt slapped something flat down upon the bar with a triumphant smack, and gave Elliott an impish smile. “You don't wanna see my room number?”
“Your room number?” Elliott said, and beamed. “You're staying here?”
“Just this weekend,” Hyatt said. “I won't be staying here regular. I been living with my daughter and her husband just down the way. Usually I just stop here for a drink on my way down to the casino.”
And to see if our games are any luckier than the ones at the Excalibur, Elliott thought. But handed Hyatt his drink and didn't say it.
“Well, my daughter got a big ol' baby shower this weekend, so she kick the old man out,” Hyatt said, taking his highball glass and swirling the drink. “Gettin' to be where it looks like I'm in the way. She says no, but I can tell. They're kids, they gotta have some time to their self.”
“So why don't I put this on your room tab, Mr. Hyatt?” Elliott said with a smile.
“You call me Russell,” Hyatt said, offering his hand.
Elliott gave his hand a brisk, professional shake. Russell Hyatt had big hands, strong and calloused, evidently from a life of hard work.
“So you're an ex-cop?” Elliott asked, leaning against the bar. There were no other patrons, and drink service to the casino was fairly light. All the prep had been done for the evening, and there was nothing left to do.
“Twenty years,” Hyatt nodded. “Six in Chicago, ten in N'Orleans, and four here in Vegas. That's how I ended up with this stiff neck,” he added, taking a swig of his drink.
Thinking of Ursula Abrams, Elliott said, “Did you have an accident in your patrol car?”
“Huh-uh,” Hyatt said. “Drivin' along, I kept seeing damn fine women on every corner. Bad enough in N'Orleans during Mardi Gras they got them girls who don't wear nothing but beads, but here there's enough pretty women to give a man whiplash.” He chuckled to himself.
“What kind of work did you do for the force?”
“Mostly vice,” Hyatt said with a toothy grin. “And mostly vice on my time off, too. A man's gotta have a little relaxation time, you know what?”
“I do know,” Elliott said with a faint smile.
A cocktail waitress swept up to the bar wearing an extremely full bikini top and a floral wrap slung around her hips. She had dusky Polynesian skin, shoulder-length black hair with a hibiscus in it, and not an ounce of fat anywhere except the two obvious locations up front. “Hey, El,” she said, laying aside her tray and propping her elbows on the bar. “Can you make a Sex on the Beach with pineapple for me?”
“That's a great opening line, Dee Dee,” Elliott said dryly.
She smacked the bar with one tiny palm, causing some delightful jiggles, and gave an exasperated laugh. “Come on, I'm serious. Special order.”
Elliott reached for the peach schnapps, noting the way Hyatt's eyes gravitated to the way she bounced in her top when she had hit the bar. His neck didn't seem to hurt him all that much, did it? Elliott mixed the drink in a shaker and poured it into a highball glass. “There you go, Dee Dee.”
She laughed again, rolling her eyes. “I told you not to call me that,” she called over her shoulder as she left the bar, the drink perched on her tray. Hyatt watched her go, his lips pursed in a soundless whistle.
“Whiplash?” Elliott asked with a smirk.
“Yeah, I'm telling you,” Hyatt said. “Whoooee. Damn. Is she new?”
“She's been here a while. She just started working this shift,” Elliott said blandly, rinsing out his shaker. The jukebox switched over from Alannah Myles to Everclear.
“Why d'you call her Dee Dee?”
“Isn't it obvious?” Elliott said, amused. “Double Dee. Her name is really Deanne,” he added.
“See, that's how come I had to quit,” Hyatt said, tossing a thumb over his shoulder toward the door. “All them girls out on the street. Kinda hard to watch the road.”
“Yes, it can be distracting,” Elliott asked in a careful tone. “I hope nothing happened.”
Hyatt took quite some time assembling an answer for that, but before he had a chance to speak they were interrupted again. A new patron had entered the Sand Bar, one unfamiliar to Elliott: white male, medium height, clean-shaven. Dark hair was slicked back from his forehead with some kind of styling gel. The newcomer wore a neutral gray jacket over a white tee, khaki Dockers, and brown work boots, and he appeared to be scanning the bar as if looking for something.
“Can I help you, sir?” Elliott called.
The newcomer approached the bar and pulled out his wallet without being asked. He flipped it open to show his license, which contained a poor but passable picture. Elliott had time to glimpse the birthdate and name — Garvin Danbury — before he flipped it closed again and returned it to his pocket. “Martini on the rocks,” Dabney said. “No gin.”
“On the rocks?” Hyatt asked. “That ain't no way to drink a martini.”
“My mama didn't raise me right,” Danbury said, and flashed a charismatic smile. The smile stayed for a moment, touching every part of his face except the eyes, and then flickered off again, as if a circuit had been cut.
“Vermouth, on the rocks,” Elliott said, pushing a cocktail napkin across the bar and pulling out a chilled martini glass from the mini fridge.
“You in town for the weekend?” Hyatt asked, looking the man over.
Danbury seemed to consider the question. “Yes,” he replied after a pause. “I'm here for a business conference. I fly out Sunday night.”
“Which conference?” Elliott asked, more to make conversation than from curiosity. “Management concepts seminar?”
Again, the pause; again, the charismatic smile flickered on. “Vacuum cleaners,” Danbury said. He scooped up the cocktail napkin before Elliott could deposit the glass there, and took the glass in his napkined hand. The smile flickered off again. “That's what I do. I sell vacuum cleaners.”
“It must be interesting,” Elliott offered.
Danbury didn't answer. He hoisted the martini. “I'll be back,” he said. “I fly out Sunday.”
“Have fun at your conference,” Elliott called to him as he left.
Hyatt also watched him go, then turned back to the bartender with a grunt.
Elliott wiped down the bar. Danbury's chilled glass had left a moisture ring. “Something bothering you?”
“Old habits die hard,” Hyatt said, lost in thought. “Something wrong with that guy.”
“People do drink vermouth plain,” Elliott countered. “Not very often, I admit.”
Hyatt shook his head and took a drink. “Mmm, no, not that. You see them boots he had on? Hiking boots. Those weren't salesman shoes.”
“He can wear any kind of shoes he wants on his own time.”
“Maybe. And he didn't offer a card. Never met a salesman yet who wasn't trying to get me to take one of his cards. Vacuum cleaners, my ass.” Hyatt drummed his glass with his fingers. “And the way he had the glass in his hand. With a napkin. Like he didn't want fingerprints on it.”
Elliott shrugged. “What difference does that make? He showed me ID. We know who he is. He had to leave a credit card number in order to get a room.”
“Didn't show it for very long,” Hyatt objected. “And he didn't wait for you to ask. Huh.”
“I wouldn't worry about it, Mr. Hyatt,” Elliott assured him. “Maybe he's hiding something, and maybe he isn't. I'm sure the Hotel is very safe.”
Hyatt took another pull at his cocktail, and then grinned ruefully. “Hell, you're probably right. Old habits die hard.”
By seven o'clock, Hyatt had moved on — to the craps table, then to video blackjack, then to the nickel slots, if Elliott was any judge of the man's history. Russell Hyatt liked to claim that he only stopped by the Lakes Hotel on his way to somewhere else, but ultimately spent more time here than he would probably care to admit. Not that the machines at the Lakes Hotel offered any better payout than the casinos down the street, but the girls here were certainly prettier. Much prettier, Elliott mused, thinking of Dee Dee.
Occasionally Dee Dee, or one of the other cocktail waitresses on shift, would return and ask for a drink on Hyatt's behalf: something unusual, something salty — something to change Hyatt's luck, not that any drink ever would. Elliott kept a careful mental list of the drinks he had prepared for him, and hoped that this weekend, Hyatt's luck would turn.
The evening was busier than the afternoon. Gambling was a twenty-four-hour pastime for many, but only the most dedicated drinkers started before the five o'clock work whistle. Ursula Abrams never materialized, but soon Elliott was too caught up in his bartending to spare much thought for her.
At about eight, a woman slipped into the Sand Bar and headed straight for a bar stool, positioning her room key-card protectively in front of her. She was about forty, and blonde, but her face was unmade and prematurely lined, her expression hollow and haunted. There was a lingering trace of a bruise around her left eye.
Elliott bustled his way over to where she sat. “Room 316,” he noted, looking at her key-card. “What can I get for you, miss?”
She smiled wistfully at the word. “I haven't been called miss for a long time.”
“Then it's time someone did,” Elliott quipped. “What can I get for you, miss?”
The woman stared at the racks of bottles behind the bar, casting her eye over the bewildering variety. “I don't know,” she said. “What are people drinking these days?”
“The martini has come back into style,” he suggested.
“Has it? That's nice.” She bit her lip. “My husband doesn't like me to drink.”
Elliott again noted the bruise near her left eye, and decided he'd mention it. “I can see that,” he said. “But there's nothing wrong with a drink now and then, in moderation.”
She laughed bitterly, and touched the spot. “Moderation is not a word my husband is familiar with. He would be absolutely horrified to find I was here in a bar with drinking and gambling.”
“I won't tell, I promise,” Elliott said. “What would you like?”
“I'll have a martini,” she said, lifting her chin defiantly. “Do they still come with olives?”
“If you like.”
“I don't like,” she countered, with a shy grin. “I can't stand olives. But I'm going to have one anyway.”
“Good girl, that'll show him,” Elliott said, returning the smile.
“And nobody's called me girl in a long time, either,” she added, watching Elliott pour gin and vermouth into the glass.
“I can't just call you Room 316,” he said as he stirred.
“Then call me Nadine. Nadine Oba.”
“Pleased to meet you,” he said, and introduced himself. “Are you staying for the weekend, Nadine Oba?”
“As long as it takes,” she said, and sighed. “I'll probably go back Sunday. I just need to get away from him for a while. He'll worry if he sees I'm not there.”
The lesbian couple from earlier in the morning came into the bar, and seated themselves in a booth far from the door, eyeing the scantily-clad cocktail waitress. After serving them, and several more customers, Elliott made his way back over to the bar to check up on Nadine. She was biting into the gin-soaked olive and making a face.
“How was your martini, Nadine Oba?” he asked her with a smile.
“Perfect,” she said, pushing the empty glass back toward him. “Even the olive.”
She watched as he mixed a second martini for her. “Oba,” Elliott mused aloud. “Japanese name?”
Nadine nodded, brushing hair from her face. “He's very traditional. Hard-working.”
“And he doesn't want you to drink. Here you are, one martini.”
“Thank you. He hates the very thought,” Nadine said, dipping a finger into the gin and tasting it. “Can you imagine that? It doesn't stop him from drinking, of course, oh no.” Once more the bitter laugh surfaced, possibly emboldened by alcohol. “He drinks like a sailor. Is that the right word? What is it that people drink like?”
“Most people say curses like a sailor,” Elliott said, “and drinks like a fish.”
“Well, he does both,” Nadine said airily, and took a ladylike sip. “So I'll say he drinks like a sailor.”
“If you say so,” Elliott grinned.
“I do say. He's not here.” She took another finger-taste of her martini as the thought settled in. “He's not here. What do I care what he thinks?”
Dee Dee came up alongside her and leaned over the bar on her elbows again, nearly spilling out of her bikini top. “Mr. Hyatt wants a Coke,” she announced. “I think he's about done for the night.”
“Good call,” Elliott said, and pulled the Coca-Cola nozzle out on its flexible tube and filled a drink. “Coke is usually his last drink of the day.”
Nadine's sidelong look of mild, jealous disapproval at Dee Dee's cleavage waterfall dissipated when she saw Elliott fill the glass with cola. “That's clever! What's that?”
“It's a bar gun,” he said, showing it to her. “They're very handy. There's Coke, soda water, and plain water, on these buttons here.”
“Aren't they cool?” Dee Dee asked, beaming. “I totally want one.”
Nadine's reservation seemed to melt. She didn't appear to want to like Dee Dee — or perhaps her husband didn't approve of her having friends. But Nadine offered her up a tentative smile nevertheless. “I don't think Yasuo would let me.”
“If he's the one who let you have that bruise,” Dee Dee said, not unsympathetically, “then maybe you ought to think about leaving him behind.”
“I could never do that,” the woman mumbled. “He needs me.”
Dee Dee rolled her eyes at Elliott and left the Sand Bar, cola in hand. Nadine turned to Elliott, almost worried. “That's right, isn't it? He does need me.”
“Perhaps,” Elliott said slowly, picking his words, “perhaps he needs you a lot more than you need him.”
“I just don't know,” Nadine fretted. She picked up her second martini and took her first drink from it. “I don't know if I can leave him.”
Elliott smiled at her. “Miss, I hope you get the chance to find out.”
9♥ J♦ J♠ 7♦ 10♠
At six o'clock on Friday morning, Brett was in the tiled guest shower by the indoor-outdoor pool. This was not her usual time to swim, but since having switched to the eight-to-four shift, it was the best time of day for it. None of the hotel guests would be using the pool at this hour. While the pool was heated, the air was still chilly. Exercise would make it seem warmer.
Her morning laps in the pool represented a contract she had made with herself: exercise and stay fit, keep her body trim, come what may. Working at the hotel had her up and down at all hours, covering for other employees: one day serving food as a waitress, the next day helping to re-paint a hallway. The hotel's maxim was constant change, and Brett's routine in the midst of chaos comforted her.
She swam several times across the outdoor half of the pool and back, watching and listening as the hotel staff in the cabana bar prepared for the day: slicing lemon and lime garnishes, stocking the shelves behind the bar, throwing out empties. Her long hair trailed behind in her wake.
It's going to take forever to dry, she thought idly. Tomorrow I'd better get up earlier.
Brett climbed out of the pool and wrapped one of the old-style hotel towels around her body. She was tiny and the towel huge; it completely covered her yellow one-piece swimsuit from shoulder to thigh. Through vacant hallways, she padded back to her room in yellow flip-flop sandals.
With the hair dryer stretched to the furthest extent of the cord, Brett stood at her closet, head tilted to one side to let her hair hang in the warm air of the dryer. She wore the bored and befuddled look of someone who had absolutely no idea what to wear.
Eventually she chose a hip-hugging miniskirt in a floral-pattern orange, and a plain while silk blouse. She fished around in the closet until she came up with matching orange flats. For several long minutes she stared at her face in the mirror, trying to decide whether it was worth the time to wear makeup. In the end she sighed and did the minimum she felt she needed: foundation, eyeliner, blush, lipstick. She pinned back her still-damp tresses with a butterfly clip and studied the result.
Brett sighed again, and looked sadly at her own reflection. “What did I do wrong?”
Business at the hotel's front desk that morning was brisk, much busier than yesterday. Of course, it was a Friday; people were taking an extra day off to make it a long weekend, and they were checking in early.
One weekend at a time, Brett reminded herself several times that morning.
A tall man in his late forties, with steel-gray hair and a silk suit to match, checked into the hotel about eleven o'clock. He looked rumpled and red-eyed, and was sweating slightly from the midmorning heat. “I have a reservation,” he announced, setting down his cases. “It might be under Peak Performance Technical, or under the name Byerly.”
Brett accessed the reservation in the computer. “First name?”
“Schuyler. Or maybe Sky. I don't know, my secretary made the reservation.”
“Did you have a printed confirmation?”
He hesitated. “No. She gave me one, but I don't know where it is. Am I in trouble?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Maybe,” Brett said. She was not in the mood to flirt today, certainly not with him. “Here you are. Schuyler Byerly, room 611. That's on the company card?”
Brett coded a new key-card for him, sweeping it through the magnetic read-writer until the computer gave the all clear. “All right, sir, here is your card. That gives you access to the pool and the weight room, and it can be used in the restaurant and the bar to charge your meals directly to your room.”
He shook his head. “The company doesn't pay the bar tab. That isn't on the per diem.”
“If you want, sir, I can disable that here in the computer.”
“Please do,” he said. “I leave myself entirely in your hands.”
Brett smiled. It had been an odd thing for him to say. She went on with her routine: “And you may also have a brochure about the Hotel.”
“Very good,” he said absently, and tucked the card into his shirt pocket. A rack of pamphlets and half-sheet ads caught his eye, and he wandered over to browse through them. “Over here. May I?”
Brett tried not to sigh, as she stood with the correct brochure in her hand. The businessman looked over the racks of pamphlets, advertisements, offers, coupons, and other assorted glossy color promotions. Lake Tahoe, Death Valley, Lake Mead, Mount Charleston, Spring Valley State Park Take a day trip to the Valley of Fire. Visit scenic Red Rock Canyon. And there were other, less savory advertisements. The man was pulling one out.
“Pahrump,” Schuyler said. “That's a strange name for a town. Why would anybody want to go there?”
“It has its attractions,” she admitted, grudgingly.
“Oh, really? Such as?”
That look of innocent curiosity has to be fake, Brett decided. Aloud she said, “Prostitution isn't legal in Las Vegas, Mr. Byerly — not anywhere in Clark County. Most people take a short trip into Nye County. Into Pahrump.”
“Really?” he said, sounding impressed.
Definitely faked, she thought cynically.
“Well, maybe I'll just take this one instead,” Schuyler said, selecting another brochure. “I don't think the company would pay for me to visit a brothel!” He laughed, and it was all Brett could do not to wince. The man was no actor. And he didn't put the brochure for Pahrump back into the rack.
He made a show of gathering up his suitcases. “Room 611,” he reminded himself. “Which way are the elevators?”
“To your left,” Brett said. “Have a pleasant stay.”
The remainder of the day passed in a dreary, foot-aching blur. A slow but steady stream of guests checked into the Lakes Hotel. Several conferences and seminars and tradeshows were being held that weekend. A number of casinos advertised low-airfare specials for Friday-morning flights. There was also at least one family reunion, according to a black man who checked in with two less-black teenagers who must have been his son and daughter and also with a young white teenager — what kind of family reunion that would be, Brett didn't want to speculate. Perhaps the white kid was the daughter's boyfriend.
How much more of this could Brett take? Tomorrow would be the same: travelers, irritated by their long flights or long drives, would stand at the counter making demands. Most of the men would look at her as if she were a side of meat, trying to peer through her silk blouse to see if she was wearing a bra. Most of the women looked as if they were grading her choice of clothing. A handful of the guests, male and female, looked in trepidation at her Japanese features, and appeared pleasantly stunned that she spoke comprehensible and unaccented English.
Perhaps, she thought, it was time to leave the Hotel. She had been here six months now, six months without a sign of reprieve.
But near the end of her shift, three guests arrived that put all of that out of her mind: three women she had known from a past life, from before the Hotel.
“Brett! My God, it's you!”
That was Tara Addison, coming into the lobby at fifteen minutes of four: thirty, tending toward plump, dark-haired and blue-eyed, her enthusiastic charisma tinged with every new bride's fear that she wouldn't fit into the dress. Tara wore large, dark sunglasses and a coy sun hat, and a flowing pink dress. She dropped her suitcases and crossed the carpet in a rush to exchange embraces with Brett over the counter.
“Tara!” Brett smiled. “Sister, you made my day. What are you doing here?”
“We're staying the weekend!” she said brightly. “We've come to visit you.”
“Yes,” Brett said, “but why here? You know what happened last time!”
“Exactly!” Tara said. “I talked it over with the girls — you know, all of us who were bridesmaids at Cody's wedding? And we decided that we absolutely had to stay here for one weekend right before my wedding.” She waved vaguely toward the door. “The other girls are fighting over who gets to pay the airport shuttle.”
“But—” Brett didn't quite know what to say. “I didn't see your names in the reservation computer.”
Tara ducked her head sheepishly, and gave an anything-but-shy grin. “We cheated. I had us all use different names. I went by my middle name, and my mom's maiden name. Joy Benson.”
“Look at you, being all secret agent,” Brett said, and looked Tara over. “What's the dark glasses and the hat for? And pink. You hate pink.”
“I know, it makes my face look red,” Tara replied happily. “Did you recognize me?”
Brett shook her head. “Only by your voice.”
“Good,” the bride-to-be said. “I hope Xavier doesn't recognize me, either.”
“Xavier?” Brett asked blankly. “Why, is he coming here tonight too?”
“Shhh!” Tara said, and giggled. “It's his bachelor party tonight.”
“And they're having it here?” Brett asked, shocked. “Tara—”
Tara waved away Brett's objections airily. “It'll work out, Brett. We wanted them to have it here. In fact, we specifically prohibited Frank from staying here.”
Brett nodded. Frank was Xavier's best man, and the most reliable of all the groomsmen: when you told him he couldn't do something, you knew for certain he would move heaven and earth to defy you. “It sounds like Frank.”
“Cody and Denise are deliriously happy,” Tara said, changing the subject. “Denise is already pregnant.”
“That must come as a surprise to her,” Brett said nastily.
“Don't laugh,” Tara said. “It might have been you!”
“I know it,” Brett sighed. “And to think I was one day away from marrying her myself.”
Tara's expression turned sober. “It wouldn't have worked. You and Cody would never have made it. A lot of us knew you just weren't right for each other.”
“Apparently not,” Brett said. “Why didn't you say anything?”
“What was there to say?” Tara asked simply. “You can't talk someone out of being in love.”
Brett turned her attention to the computer, stung. “Fine, Tara. Go ahead and give me the speech again about how it's all for the best. It's still hard to not feel betrayed. I came here for the wedding rehearsal expecting to get married to Cody, and what happens? This damned Hotel decides that Cody would be happier getting married to my best man.”
“Denise isn't a best man any more,” Tara said quietly. “She's a pretty good woman, though. And she and Cody are happy.”
“Does Cody make a better man than I did?” Brett asked, a bitter edge to her voice.
Tara shrugged. “They're happy. What else can you want for them?”
Brett looked up at the ceiling and sighed. “Nothing, I guess. I do want them to be happy. I just don't understand why it had to come at my expense.”
“Your expense?” Tara asked, amazed. “Brett, I'm jealous.”
“Jealous?” Brett laughed bitterly. “Jealous of me? Tara, I got transformed into a woman, I'm stuck here working at this hotel. My whole life got wiped out and rewritten.”
“Yes, jealous,” Tara said, raising her voice. “Brett, it may take a little bit of time, but the Hotel is going to set you up with your perfect match. The best possible relationship that it can, ever. Something that lasts. Do you know how hard it is for the rest of us, trying to find someone we can be happy with for a little while? Trying to find somebody you can love and trust? This is going to be my third marriage already,” Tara went on. “My third. That means I screwed up twice. You, you'll get the perfect man just by being here.”
“Right. Or woman. I don't know how the Hotel can do it — change people — frankly, I don't care,” Tara said. “But it knows. It knows if relationships are right.”
Light dawned, and Brett began to smile. “Ah, so that's why you're here incognito. You managed to get your fiancé checked into the hotel for his bachelor party, and you're secretly going to check into a room yourself. If this is the relationship that's meant to be...”
“Then I'll know,” Tara finished uneasily. “And if it's not, I'll know that too.”
Tara smiled. “Maybe. What's the worst that can happen?”
The door dinged again, and two other women entered the lobby. One of them Brett recognized: Carmen Griffith, a raven-haired Latina her own age whose once-lush beauty had been depleted by years of tanning beds and marital stress. Her brow was beginning to show an unhappy crease, and her mouth now seemed to be turned permanently down. Carmen had on a simple black tank top and jeans and had not, Brett observed, bothered with makeup. In her hand was a cardboard cup of coffee with the Hard Rock Café logo on the side.
“We went back to the place across the street to see if that cute guy still worked there,” Carmen explained, showing her cup. “But he wasn't in.”
Beside her was another woman in a flowing scarlet dress, suitcase in hand, who was staring at Brett with a mixture of suspicion and awe. She was tall and lean, with skin the color of coffee and cream: Polynesian, perhaps, with some East Asian mixed in. “Is this Brett?” she asked, looking right at her.
“Oh. Yes,” Tara said, remembering her manners. “Brett, this is Isadora Holakoui. She's a friend of Denise. You may recognize her; she was at the wedding.”
“I didn't go,” Brett said shortly.
“Well, she would have been in the wedding photographs.”
Brett sighed. “I didn't look at them. How could I? That was my fiancée getting married to my best man.”
“You mean it's true?” Isadora asked eagerly. “I didn't believe it when they told me. You really used to be a man?”
“Yes,” Brett said, and nodded. It felt like it had been a thousand years ago.
“And Cody used to be a woman?” she asked with something like wicked glee. “Oh my God, I can totally see him as a woman. You were going to get married?” She put a hand to her mouth, as if silencing herself, and her large brown eyes were suddenly apologetic. “I'm sorry, Brett, I didn't mean to dance on your grave or anything. I just can't believe this! What's it like getting turned into a woman?”
“It felt like,” Brett said slowly, choosing her words carefully, “like being disarmed.”
Isadora's eyes twinkled with evil delight. “And you've been a girl ever since? Since the wedding?”
“Off and on,” Brett admitted. “Depends on where I'm working in the Hotel. I've been male for short periods. Then someone on the staff leaves, and I move up to a new position. Sometimes that means I change bodies.”
“So that explains it,” Carmen said, tapping her lips thoughtfully. “I thought I remembered that you got turned into a blond girl. I definitely remember blond. Now you're Asian or something. How can you stand working here, changing all the time?”
Brett spread her small hands in frustration. “What choice have I got? If I leave now, if I walk away from this job, I'll stay like this. If I want to be a man again, I've got to put in my time here and hope somebody comes along for me.”
“Comes along?” Isadora asked blankly. “Oh! Your match. You think some perfect guy is going to come walking in that door for you?” That made her grin impishly again. “You ever slept with a guy, Brett?”
“Dora!” Carmen protested. Brett could feel herself blushing.
“Fine,” Isadora said. “Ever sleep with a girl, then? I mean like this. Come on,” she said defensively, seeing the shocked reactions of her friends. “Girls can be a lot of fun. I just wouldn't want to date one. You know girls are all psycho.”
That made Brett laugh weakly. “Whose side are you on?”
“My own, I guess,” Isadora grinned.
“Hey, Brett?” Tara asked. “What time do you get off shift? Maybe we should have a few drinks and get caught up.”
“Clubbing? No way,” Carmen said, holding up her hands. “This girl's married.”
“But Car, Frank's an ass,” Tara said.
“I take my vow seriously,” Carmen said darkly, “even if Frank doesn't.”
“I'm off right now, actually,” Brett said, checking the time. “Eight to four. Nathan should be here any minute to take over.”
“We can't go clubbing,” Isadora said. “The guys will be out tonight hitting all the bars. We might run into them.”
“Are you sure they're not here already?” Carmen asked.
Tara shook her head. “I didn't see Xavier's Honda. Or your car either, Carmen. What does Luis drive?”
“A maroon Acura,” Carmen said immediately.
“Maybe they took Frank's car.”
Carmen scowled. “Frank would never volunteer to be the designated driver.”
“I'll check to see if they're here,” Brett suggested, moving toward the registration computer. She tapped a few keys and scanned the guest list. “No, I don't see they've checked in. According to the computer they're due in after nine o'clock.”
“So,” Tara said, as decisive as any bride-to-be, “we have until nine o'clock — make it eight, to be safe. We get back by then, and we stay inside the rest of the night. And then...” She trailed off with a wistful sigh. “And then we see what the Hotel has to say.”
3♦ 7♦ Q♣ 7♥ K♣
Friday evening was one of the busiest shifts of the week on the casino floor, and Dee Dee didn't have any time to catch her breath. Her duties as a hostess weren't demanding, but they were never-ending. In a way, she thought of herself as a gardener, traveling around the floor to see that all the plants were well watered. The gamblers, for their part, stayed rooted by their machines, feeding coins into slots and into video poker, or sat at their card tables in the Pit. Occasionally they would bestir themselves and move to another machine, another table, another game. Whether based on their meticulous notes, or their imagined instinct for probability, the gamblers decided that their luck had run out here, or that it would be better elsewhere: craps, roulette, keno, slots. It was like Brownian motion, she thought to herself: predictably random swirling of individual particles.
Dee Dee hadn't always been a cocktail waitress. She hadn't always been beautiful. At an early age she realized that her reflection in the mirror would never get any thinner, never match the rail-thin models in Cosmopolitan, and she despaired of ever finding a man she would be happy with, still later despaired of finding a man at all. People told her she had a great personality, and a beautiful face, and a sharp mind, none of which made her feel better about her balloon-shaped body.
That changed — was it already a year ago? Yes, very nearly twelve months ago she had come to stay in the Lakes Hotel as a celebration for having graduated from the nearby University of Nevada, Las Vegas with a degree in Engineering. (It was a great way to meet men, Dee Dee had been told; few women took such courses. But it hadn't worked.) She and her girlfriends had rented rooms here for a weekend of drinking, gambling, and fun — the same so-called fun, in Dee Dee's opinion, as the UNLV campus, only with different decoration.
The next morning she had woken up with this figure. Perfect, toned, and topheavy, dark of skin and hair, flawless of complexion. Now a lean and gorgeous island girl instead of a red-faced pasty white dumpling, Dee Dee finally knew what it was like to be the center of all male attention. All men's eyes sought her — starting with her chest and, sometimes, ending there. It wasn't what she had imagined, and yet she wouldn't trade it to have her old body back. Not yet.
None of her girlfriends seemed to notice that anything had changed the next morning, and none of the Hotel staff — who did notice — could properly explain to her how it happened. They gave her vague theories, ideas that had percolated through a generation of staffers one after the other. Some of the staff guessed that there had been a newlywed couple murdered there, back when it had been the pink-and-white Honeymoon Hotel, and whose ghosts now guided guests into the perfect relationship they had been meant to have. Had anybody seen these ghosts? Nobody she ever talked to had. Some said it was God's doing, that the Hotel had been blessed to become an oasis of love and fidelity in a desert of sin. Another going theory was atomic radiation, as the Honeymoon had been built the same year as the government began nuclear tests on the Nevada Proving Grounds. This was the quaint, antiquated theory that none really believed, a theory taken out and examined only when others came up short.
For a brief time she left the Hotel to find work, but she discovered that employers were less interested in her degree than in her double Ds. Some of the men who interviewed her were dreadfully patronizing, as if they could not bring themselves to believe in a beautiful woman who understood the difference between Bernoulli and Bearnaise. Dee Dee tried dating, and while she found it was easier to get the attentions of any man in the room, it was less easy to find a man she actually wished to be with. All her life she had been recognized only for the beauty inside; now, it seemed, men were only willing to see the beauty outside.
So she returned to the Hotel, applying for a job. Here, so the staff had claimed, she might find a match. Perhaps she would. After what the Hotel had already done for her, Dee Dee was prepared to believe anything.
Dee Dee moved up the ranks at the Hotel, and she saw for herself how visitors were assigned their perfect match: whether male or female, the Hotel realized that two people were destined for one another, and so it … arranged for them to be together. Occasionally it meant that someone on the Hotel staff would depart, or retire, in the company of his or her perfect partner. It could be thought of as a reward for their tenure. As staff departed, those below them moved up the hierarchy, graduating from the barely-seen roles in housekeeping and maintenance and cuisine to the highly visible roles of waitress, lifeguard, reception, or — like Elliott, who had been here longer even than Dee Dee — bartender.
When there were leftovers, when there were guests that could not be matched, they were brought onto the staff. Brett was one of those, Dee Dee recalled: a husband-to-be whose fiancée had been given her match, came to be at a loose end. Husbands separated from wives; girlfriends torn from boyfriends; ill-matched couples shuffled and paired off anew like a giant game of Go Fish.
For tonight, Dee Dee was a cocktail waitress, wearing the traditional themed costume of the Lakes Hotel: something scanty and suitably tropical. She had chosen for tonight a bikini top made of hard pink cups the shape of seashells, and something like a knee-length grass skirt, only sparkling and metallic. The overall impression was of a particularly naughty mermaid.
She drifted around the casino floor, listening in on the conversations. The Hotel left many guests untouched. A great majority of the visitors left without any suspicion at all that there was anything unusual about the Lakes. For a few, it changed everything. It was something of a game: who was a match for whom? With which visitors would the Hotel intervene?
Dee Dee would have placed money on Carter, the divorced father in 519. His story was the kind the Hotel seemed to love to rewrite. Stolid and reliable father of two, black man who married a white woman but with whom things didn't seem to last. He spent the first part of the night playing the quarter slots very conservatively, making each dollar last. Carter sat on a stool with one well-worn shoe propped up on the rungs, his white shirt open at the collar and his sleeves rolled back. Apparently he was in town with his two young-adult children for a family reunion. She gleaned a lot of information about them just drifting by with her cocktail tray.
“Tomorrow,” Carter was saying wearily to his daughter, a girl about twenty who was noticably lighter than he himself. “Your mama said she was going to be checking in tomorrow, that's all I know.”
“Which hotel, Pop?” she asked, tracing a brick-red fingernail across the chrome of the slot he was playing. From her body and her clothing, she looked just on the brink of adulthood: early twenties, if that. Black pegged jeans, loose pink-pinstriped blouse. She didn't inherit her father's afro, or if she had, she'd spent a fortune getting it straightened enough that she could pull it back into a ponytail. “Is she going to be staying here, Pop? Did she say?”
He reached into his red coin bucket for another quarter. From the sound of it, there were few enough left. “Sweetie, your mama didn't tell me that. When I made our reservations most of the other places was full, which is why we're staying at this one.”
“So maybe she had to make reservations here too,” the young woman guessed.
“That's a pretty big maybe, sweetie,” Carter told his daughter. “I wouldn't count that chicken yet.”
“Can I get you anything?” Dee Dee asked them politely.
“Beer,” Carter said. “Pyramid, if you've got it.”
“We do,” Dee Dee smiled.
“Can I get a beer, Pop?” the young woman asked.
“I'll buy you one,” her father said firmly. “Any more than that, and you're buying 'em yourself.”
His daughter flashed her identification: California license, twenty-one years old in January.
“Aurora,” Dee Dee said. “That's a gorgeous name.”
“Thanks,” she said, with a puzzled smile.
“I'll be right back with your drinks,” Dee Dee promised them.
“If you see my son in here, tell him I said he could have a drink, too,” Carter said, producing his own license for inspection. Evidently his first name was Winslow.
“What does he look like?”
“Black, like my daughter,” Carter said, snapping his wallet shut. “Might be hanging around with a tall white kid. That's my daughter's boyfriend, he's paying his own way,” he added with a grin, nudging her.
“Be nice, Pop,” she said, unruffled.
When she came back to them later with their drinks, Dee Dee committed the cardinal sin of any casino hostess: she asked how their gaming was going. She had been reminded endlessly not to inquire into a patron's successes, lest he suddenly remember how far in the hole he was.
“Not too bad,” Winslow Carter said, brandishing two small plastic coin buckets. “I got my money in this one, and my winnings in this one. When the money bucket is empty, I stop. I'm just hopin' to have more in the bucket when I'm done than what I started with, right?”
Dee Dee laughed and handed Carter his beer. “That's what we all hope for, isn't it?”
“You know it,” he said, returning the laugh. His eyes strayed, briefly, to the swell between Dee Dee's amply filled coconut cups. Divorced, but not dead, she noted to herself.
“Besides,” Carter went on with a roguish smirk, “if I don't come out ahead, what am I gonna brag about tomorrow at the reunion?”
“Brag about your two beautiful kids,” Dee Dee suggested.
“I been doing that so much I bet my whole family's sick of hearing it,” Carter said, and winked. “Now if only their mama saw things the same way, I wouldn't be gettin' all this grief. Everybody's gonna want to know where she's at, if she's comin' back. You know the story.” He gestured over toward where Aurora and her brother and a tall, well-dressed white kid were clustered around a video poker machine. “Their gram's gonna wonder how come they ain't married yet.”
“Sounds like my family reunions,” Dee Dee grinned, and patted him on the arm. “Good luck tomorrow.”
There was a tall, older gentleman in a gray silk suit standing by the roulette table, making bets on evens and reds and stealing looks down the open throat of the croupier's tied-off Hawaiian shirt. Dee Dee didn't quite know what to make of him.
“Can I get you anything, sir?” she asked, touching his elbow.
“From the bar?” he asked, and hesitated. It seemed as if he had had a bad day: he had a faint odor of sweat, and his jacket was rumpled as if he had spent most of the day sitting down. Travel weariness, Dee Dee guessed. The man twiddled his fingers nervously. “How about a scotch and soda?”
“Would you like me to charge it to your room?”
“Oh, no,” he said with a mysterious smile. “I could get into a lot of trouble by doing that. Company tab, you see.”
“You can settle the bar bill in cash when you leave,” Dee Dee advised.
He paused again. “All right. Schuyler Byerly, Room 611. Scotch and soda.”
“Scotch and soda,” she repeated.
“You know,” Byerly said conversationally, nodding his head toward the croupier. She was scooping stacks of chips across the green felt table with her rake, “She wields that thing like a riding crop. I asked her if she used that thing in private for a generous tip, but she turned me down flat.”
Ah, so that's what he's after, Dee Dee thought to herself. Rather than smile, she let her brow crease pensively and suggested, “You know, there are some mistresses up in Pahrump who charge for that kind of thing.”
“Oh, me? I wouldn't go all the way up to — no, I wasn't suggesting...” Byerly didn't finish the sentence for a moment. “They're probably full, anyway,” he concluded lamely. “Probably get more business than they can handle, place like this. Guys coming in from all over the country looking for … a mistress? Is that what they call it?”
What a rotten liar, Dee Dee thought, and smiled. “A dominatrix? I believe so, sir.”
“Maybe I'll go up there tomorrow,” Byerly said in a breezy voice. “Just to see what it's like up there. Unless you know of anybody around here...?”
Dee Dee gave him her best can't-be-bothered smile. “I wouldn't know, sir. Scotch and soda, was it?”
There were two women sitting hand in hand together in the Parlor. The tall one, a lean black woman in a man's business jacket, appeared to be intently watching the Sacramento Kings game on television. Her companion, a rotund Chinese woman with short spiked hair and half a dozen piercings that Dee Dee could see, read the Hotel's historical brochure in her lap. The two women interested Dee Dee. Rumor among the hotel staff was that they were lesbians, staying in one of the lakeside bungalows.
“Good evening, ladies,” she said, balancing her empty tray against her hip.
The black woman gave her a polite, professional nod, and subjected her faux-mermaid outfit to a brief, appreciative inspection. “That's a darling outfit,” she said with a suggestive smile. “Weren't you wearing a sarong last night? Orange floral — with a bikini top?”
“That was me,” Dee Dee said happily. “And you're … let me see, you're Mavis, in B10?”
“Maris, in B12,” Maris corrected her, but very sweetly. “It's nice that you remember your guests. Honor,” she said, turning to her partner. “Would you like a drink?”
Honor turned her gaze to her Maris, her head swaying slightly. “Oh, no thanks,” she said foggily. “You've already got me drunk enough, love.”
Drunk enough for what? Dee Dee wondered. Aloud, she said, “Isn't it nice being on vacation?”
“You know it,” Honor said, and frowned, as if something had just occurred to her. “How come you aren't drinking? We're on vacation. Come on. You want anything, love?”
“I have been drinking,” Maris said, quite calmly. “You watched me.”
“But you're not having fun,” Honor declared. “Come on. Just one.”
“Perhaps tomorrow night. We're getting up early tomorrow.” Dee Dee noticed that the woman was very poised and polite, very tightly controlled, her smile quick enough to appear but apt to vanish without a trace. She glanced up at Dee Dee, and with a studied expression of inoffensive inquiry, said, “Do you think you could bring me a coffee, please? Two creams, no sugar.”
“Coffee, absolutely,” Dee Dee said. “Two creams, no sugar. And for you?”
“I'd better not have coffee,” Honor announced, slurring slightly. “Then I'll be drunk and wide awake.”
“We have decaf.”
“What the fuck is the point of decaf,” Honor asked loudly, and turned to her partner. “It doesn't even taste very good.”
“Be polite, dear,” Maris said, kissing Honor on the forehead. “Nothing for her, thank you.”
Dee Dee was on the verge of turning to go, but Honor made an effort to sit up straighter. “Oh, hey,” she said, waving Dee Dee down with the historical pamphlet held in one chubby hand. “Hey, girl, I got a question about this thing.”
“Oh?” Dee Dee asked carefully. Guests often had questions about the Hotel or its reputation, but most of them were only prompted to ask by discovering themselves transformed and matched up with their perfect partner. Not many, like Honor, read the historical pamphlet and took it seriously.
“Your thing on the Hotel says here,” Honor said, trying to focus her eyes on the page, “that this used to be a Honeymoon Hotel. Or something. Where was that bit? Shit, I can't read,” she said, dissolving into giggles.
“I'll do it,” Maris said, smoothly slipping an arm around Honor's shoulders and taking the pamphlet in one motion. “Was this the part? The hidden heart of the Honeymoon Hotel still lives on. Our guests may rest assured that the Hotel wants nothing more than to see you in a lasting, loving relationship with your perfect partner, whoever that may be.”
“Yeah,” Honor said. “Yeah, that. The Hotel wants us to be together with our perfect partner? Don't you mean the staff wants us to?”
Dee Dee pursed her lips as she tried to think of the right way to answer. Maris, she suspected, could be troublesome after she found out — if she found out — that Dee Dee hadn't been truthful. Honesty was the best policy. “The Hotel does, ma'am,” she said, lowering her voice. “I've seen it happen. Sometimes people come in single and go out married. Or they come in married, and come out married to different people.”
Maris smiled tolerantly. “We should be fine,” she said in a firm voice, hugging Honor to her. “We've already stayed here one night and nothing has happened.”
“Come on, though, think of the business you could do if it was really true,” Honor said with a tipsy giggle. “You'd get lesbians staying here from all over. It's weird,” she added as an aside to Dee Dee. “Most lesbian relationships just don't last.”
“Not so,” Maris said, a note of impatience in her voice. “Heather and Sal have been together for nineteen years.”
“Well, mostly,” Honor said testily.
“But it's all nonsense anyway,” Maris declared, and looked to Dee Dee for confirmation. “Isn't that correct? It's just part of your theme.”
Dee Dee shrugged. “I know what I've seen.”
“The staff is here all the time,” Maris said in a reasonable voice. “Surely the staff would be matched up with perfect partners, and there would be no staff left. It must be impossible.”
Well, they wouldn't be able to tell Dee Dee she hadn't tried.
A♥ 4♦ 6♦ A♠
As Dee Dee was out mingling with the guests, Elliott worked the Sand Bar. Friday nights were his busiest in the bar — only Saturday nights were worse, but he had weekends off. During peak times the Lakes made sure most positions were double-covered. Elliott's backup bartender was a young man with dark, Italian good looks by the name of Giles: blue eyes, black curly hair, flawless skin, strong cheekbones. Elliott never asked whether Giles had been a man or a woman before coming to work at the Lakes, but he seemed comfortable enough with the attention the ladies gave him, so it didn't seem to matter. At any rate, Giles had the patrons on the right half of the bar covered, and Elliott managed the left and handled the special drink orders that came in from the cocktail waitresses.
Occasionally throughout the evening he drifted over to where Ursula Abrams had introduced Nadine Oba to the Singapore Sling, a tall fruity cocktail made with gin, cherry brandy, Benedictine, and club soda. He picked up threads of their conversation from time to time as he made his way along the bar.
“Oh, dear, you mustn't think like that,” Ursula said, patting Nadine's arm. “No woman ever deserves to be treated like that. Believe me, life's just too short to waste on men like that.”
“Did you ever meet a man like that in Hollywood?” Nadine asked, and sipped her drink through a straw.
“Once or twice,” the old woman admitted with a sweet smile. “I won't name names. That's one thing you can be sure of, with actors,” she added. “You never spend more time thinking about them than they do.”
“Is that why you never married?”
Ursula's ancient blue eyes took on a wistful twinkle. “Oh, if I had it to do over again, I probably would. There are nice men out there, if you know what you're looking for. That's the trouble with trying to find a husband when you're young, you see. You're inclined to pick up the first one that you see.”
“It's like shopping for groceries, when you're hungry,” Nadine ventured. There was a guessing quality to her voice, as if she were unaccustomed to participating so fully in conversations.
“Oh, my yes,” Ursula said, with a dry little laugh. “I can never go to those big stores any more.”
“Exactly,” Ursula said, pointing with a crooked finger for emphasis. “Oh dear, if I walk into one of those when I'm hungry, I come out with enough peanut butter to feed the Spanish Army.”
“Or like shopping for shoes,” Nadine said, trying on a smile.
“I'm lucky,” Ursula said. “When you get to be my age, all the best shoes hurt your feet.”
“Oh, I know,” Nadine said. “But I mean, you find a pair of shoes that you like, or a really nice blouse, and you really want it, and you don't want to wait to find one that's just your size, so you get one a shade too big because if you come back later for it, it'll be gone.”
“That's it exactly,” Ursula said. “Men are the same. By the time you know what you're shopping for, it's too late to get a good one. Now here's one,” she said, catching Elliott's eye as he approached. “You pick up a nice young man like this next time. That is what you want, someone who's good to you.”
Elliott grinned at her, embarrassed. He couldn't admit to the pair of them that he hadn't always been a nice young man, or even a young man at all. Years ago he could have used Ursula's advice about finding a good husband, but now, it just seemed quaint, like suggestions for using tinfoil on your television antenna. Helpful enough in its own era, but no longer applicable to him. “My ears were burning,” Elliott said. “Were you ladies talking about me?”
“About her husband, Yasuo,” Ursula said. “Dreadful man. I think we agreed that she should leave him.”
Nadine tried to look as confident. “Sometimes,” she confided, “he's … not very nice to me.”
Ursula patted Nadine's arm in a motherly way, not questioning her ridiculous understatement. It was enough that Nadine was speak her doubts about Yasuo aloud.
“You do deserve better,” Elliott said soberly. “I think you did the right thing by coming here.”
“He's not going to follow me here, is he?” Nadine said, worried.
Ursula sniffed. “I know the type. Everything has to be his own way. Thinks that he's master of all that he surveys. I think that he would, if he could. But can he?”
“I'm not sure,” Nadine fretted.
“Where did you tell him you were going?”
“I told him I was staying with a friend in Reno,” Nadine said guiltily. She didn't like lying. “I didn't say who.”
“Did you tell him in person?” Elliott asked.
Nadine shook her head. “I left him a note on the kitchen table. He wasn't home from the bar — from work yet. Before he could get home I made my reservation, packed some things, and left.”
“And he can't call you here?”
“Call me?” Nadine asked blankly, then realized. “No, no, he doesn't want me to have a cellular phone.”
“Oh, I love those things,” Ursula gushed. “If I had had one when I was a girl, it would have been glued to my ear. My father wouldn't have been able to get a word in edgewise at me.”
“It doesn't seem like there's much that your husband does want you to do,” Elliott observed politely. “Maybe it's best if you ask yourself what you want.”
“You see?” Ursula said, offering a crinkled smile to Nadine. Years seemed to fall away from her old face, and there was a trace of the effervescent beauty that once captured Hollywood. “I told you he was a nice young man.”
Thirty minutes later, after a short rush of bar patrons, Elliott made his way back over to the conversation. Russell Hyatt had planted himself on Nadine's other side, and together, Hyatt and Ursula worked on Nadine's self-confidence.
“Yep, we'd run his ass in for that,” Hyatt said, unsteady with alcohol. “Sure as shit. Sorry. Sure as shootin', we would. That's domestic violence, we don't even ask. Just up and arrest the guy, haul his ass in.”
“What would happen to him, then?” Nadine asked. She sounded concerned.
“After we put his ass in jail?” Hyatt said happily. “Then you and get your ass a restraining order, that's what. Tell the judge what you been tellin' us, and they'll make sure he don't come within two hunderred yards of you. Five hunnedered, even.”
“But if he gets put in jail, he might lose his job,” Nadine fretted. “He could lose everything, the house...” She bit her lip. “Everything.”
“That's his damn problem,” Hyatt declared.
“Nadine, dear,” Ursula assured Nadine carefully, patting her arm, “a man like that with a temper, he's takes it out on anybody around him. You don't want to be there when he does. And he will, dear. I've seen it, and I'm sure Mr. Hyatt has seen it.”
“Oh, yeah, absolutely,” Hyatt said expansively. “One time we got called to this domestic. Little Chinese woman, about fifty. Damn, that woman was polite as you please. Guess she got tired of taking shit from her husband. Stabbed him 'bout a dozen times in the abdomen. Washed the knife and stuck it in the dish rack to dry. Offered us tea when we got there. You'd never guess.”
Nadine looked pale and nauseated at that, and Ursula smoothly moved on. “That's not going to happen to you, Nadine,” she said sweetly. “But you must realize that only one of you is going to be happy. Which of you will it be?”
The harried woman bit her lip again, and her eyes darted back and forth between Ursula and Russell. In a small, small voice, she said, as if guessing, “Me?”
“That's the spirit, Nadine,” Ursula congratulated her. “It should always be you.”
“But I don't want him to be unhappy,” she protested.
“Are you makin' him happy?” Russell said. “Huh? He yells and carries on, an' he probably complains about how you ain't good enough, you know what? I bet right now, I bet—” Hyatt reached for his wallet unsteadily, almost fell, grabbed at the bar. “Hell. Okay, I bet whatever I got in my wallet that he ain't never gonna be happy.”
“He's happy sometimes,” Nadine said, and then amended, “Well... sometimes he's less mad.”
“And that's all you got to look forward to, girl,” Hyatt said. “So I tell you straight up, you got to dump that man flat. I don't wanna see my boys haulin' your ass in on a charge, like you had to clonk the man on the head with a meat tenderizer.”
This time, Nadine only smiled faintly. “I don't even own one.”
“Well, don't go out and get one on his account,” Ursula advised. “Besides, it sounds like Yasuo is going to need something a bit stronger.”
9♥ J♠ 10♠ J♦
The two rooms for Tara Addison, booked under the false name of Joy Benson, were conjoined suites overlooking the parking lot. From there, Tara argued, they would be able to see when Xavier's bachelor party arrived. His best man, Frank Griffith, had arranged for them to spend two nights of drink and debauchery at the Hotel, then on Sunday night they would there hold their wedding rehearsal. After that, Monday: the big day, if all went well.
Carmen pointed out that if the girls could watch as Xavier's party arrived, surely the boys could likewise see them in the window. Not when it was dark, Tara replied: and she doubted they would arrive any earlier than ten o'clock. In fact, they had specifically advised the front desk they wouldn't even check in until after nine.
Brett helped them bring their luggage up to the suite. Once there, the women sat on the two beds in the larger suite and chose their sleeping arrangements. Brett, of course, would stay in her own room on the staff floor. Tara and Carmen would sleep in the double-occupancy half, Carmen getting the bed nearest the window; and Isadora would take the single-occupancy half of the conjoined rooms. Tara was to stay away from the windows as much as possible, lest she be seen. “I don't want Xavier to think I'm spying on him,” Tara said.
“But you are,” Carmen said.
“No, I'm not,” Tara protested. “I don't care what happens at his bachelor party. I really don't.”
“You almost sound convincing,” Isadora said dryly.
“I don't!” Tara laughed. “I trust Xavier. He said he isn't interested in other women, and I believe him. We talked about what they might do tonight. He said Frank was planning the whole thing—”
“That means they're going to a strip club,” Carmen said flatly.
Tara waved that away. “I don't care about that. Frank wouldn't touch any of the girls. I know him.”
Carmen was unmoved. “I thought I knew Frank. I know him a lot better now.”
“But it's not like spying,” Tara said. “It's just ...”
“Confirmation,” Brett said.
“Exactly, confirmation,” Tara nodded. “If I'm the perfect match for Xavier, then maybe the Hotel will give us … I don't know, some kind of sign.”
“I don't think it works that way,” Brett said uncertainly. “But it'll definitely give you a sign if you're not right for him.”
“What kind of sign?”
“Well, if you wake up tomorrow, and you have a cock,” Isadora said impishly, “that would be a tiny little hint.”
“Not necessarily,” Brett said, as Tara blushed. “If Xavier turned into a girl at the same time, it could still work.”
“Has that happened?” Isadora asked, her grin widening.
“Oh yes,” Brett said. “I've seen it happen a dozen times since I've been here. Two people get together, and they're right for each other, they're just … backwards. So the Hotel fixes them so they're the right way around.”
“Did they complain?”
“Some of them do at first, but most of the time I guess it's pretty obvious to them that things are better that way.”
“Stop it!” Tara said with an embarrassed laugh, one hand at her collar to cover the blush that was spreading down her neck. “I'm not going to turn into a man tomorrow! Everything is going to work out. Xavier is the one, I just know it.”
“Third marriage is the charm,” Carmen said sarcastically.
Isadora nudged Carmen off the bed. “Not very nice, chica.”
Carmen got to her feet, torn between looking amused and indignant, and sat back down beside Isadora. “I'm just saying it could still happen. To any of us.”
“I know,” Tara said, trying to sound breezy. “It could. I'm so happy that you're here doing this with me. My God, just by staying here, we could each wake up tomorrow as somebody completely different! Everything changed.”
“Everything,” Brett murmured.
“Yes,” Tara said, slipping an arm around Brett's waist and hugging her to her side. “Anything could happen.”
Brett looked curiously at Tara for a moment, then turned her eyes to Isadora and Carmen, facing them from the edge of the other bed. “Why did you both come? I mean, knowing what could happen. You, Carmen — you could wake up tomorrow with somebody else.”
“I know,” the Latina said softly. “Maybe that wouldn't be a bad thing, either.”
Tara sighed. “Yeah, Frank's no prize, that's for sure.”
“Then why don't you just d—” Brett began, but Tara gave him a warning look. “Dump him, I mean.”
“You were going to say divorce?” Carmen asked, still quiet. “I won't do it. No divorce.”
“Not even if he asks for one?” Brett persisted.
Carmen hesitated. “Maybe. But he would never ask. He's getting everything he wants right now,” she added sourly. “I made my mistake. I chose to marry him.”
“Instead of marrying someone else?” Isadora asked alertly. “Who should it have been?”
Carmen pursed her lips and shook her head. “I shouldn't say. He's friends with my husband.”
Tara's eyes lighted up. “And he's going to be here tonight, isn't he? Oh, wait, let me guess. Luis said he might be coming. And there's Quincy.”
“And Xavier,” Isadora suggested.
Tara blanched. “You're not saying you should have married my husband?”
Carmen also looked shocked. “No, no, not Xavier. I didn't say that. That was Miss Bigmouth, over here.”
“Then you're saying it's Luis or Quincy?” Isadora asked.
“I'm not saying,” Carmen said primly. “He's my husband's friend. If it gets around that I'm in love with him, it'll all go to hell.”
“In love with him?” Brett asked.
The Latina visibly took a breath, and put on her best I've-said-too-much-already face, but said nothing.
“Fine, don't tell us,” Tara said, and smiled slyly. “We'll probably find out tomorrow anyway, am I right?”
Carmen returned the smile, almost bashfully. “Perhaps,” she said. “I won't divorce Frank. But the Bible doesn't say anything about trading up.”
There was a quiet moment of understanding between the four women, broken only when Isadora slapped her thigh through her scarlet dress. “Are we going out clubbing, or what? Come on, girls, we're burning daylight. We've got to be back here by seven!”
At Isadora's suggestion, they found a specially-for-girls restaurant near Boulevard Mall that she had heard about from her friends. At first they couldn't find it, because they were looking for the wrong name. It had previously been called Hotters, but since the Hooters chain had filed a lawsuit for the shameless ripoff of the Hooters concept, now the lighted sign bore the name Shameless. Below that, parenthetically in small print: Previously Hotters.
Inside the place was done in an industrial neon look: lots of stainless steel, exposed steel girders as support pillars, glossy black tables, and surprisingly comfortable chairs that appear to have been made from chain links welded into place. The menu was short and select, comprised almost exclusively of low-fat, low-calorie fare. Our French Fries Are Baked, Not Fried, it proclaimed. Salads could be made to order with a number of toppings. The available meats were mostly turkey, chicken, and fish. Only a small section of menu on the reverse side listed the high-calorie offerings, and almost all of them contained chocolate.
The all-male staff were all choice beefcake, and most in their teens and twenties, fresh-faced and hard-bodied. The staff uniform appeared to be a snug-fitting shirt, some tees and some tanks, and tight black shorts. It took a few minutes to be seated, since Shameless was packed on a Friday night, mostly with women, but also with a few appreciative men.
“Oh my Lord,” Carmen said, averting her eyes from a particularly fine specimen of manhood wearing a too-tight button-down shirt with a tie. She placed her left hand up to block her vision to that side, which also ostentatiously displayed her wedding band for all to see.
“Carmen, it's okay,” Isadora said encouragingly. The waiter had arrived with their cocktail orders, and Isadora had already almost finished her first. “Frank's probably out right now doing exactly the same thing.”
“I'm married, Dora,” Carmen hissed in a low voice.
Isadora dismissed that with a handwave and a blurt of air from her lips. “Then don't take any of them home with you. There's no harm in looking.”
“You sound like my husband,” Carmen said. “I don't know why I let you talk me into this.”
“Come on, girl,” Tara said, pushing Carmen's hand away from her face. “We get it, you're not Frank. He doesn't deserve you at all. You're faithful, he's not. If anybody's got a right to complain about being dragged to a girly bar, it's Brett. But she's not complaining.”
“No, why is that?” Isadora asked, turning her attention to Brett. “Like what you see here?”
“Stop teasing her, Dora,” Tara said mildly, but she too turned a curious face to Brett to see how she would respond.
“Actually, I do,” Brett admitted without embarrassment. She spread her hands. “What can I say? I got turned into a woman, now I like men.”
“What was it like, being a man?” Isadora asked intently. “I've never understood men. It seems like every time I think I know what my boyfriend is going to do, I'm always wrong. Do men really think about sex every seven seconds?”
Brett grinned. “No more than women do. If you want to know the truth, men think they're supposed to think about sex every seven seconds, because we — I mean women — keep telling them that. Or maybe men think they're allowed to think about sex every seven seconds. It's not true.”
“Do you ever miss it?” Carmen asked delicately. “I mean, do you ever miss … it?”
“Yes,” Brett said. “About every twenty-eight days.”
They all laughed. “I'll bet that was tough to get used to,” Isadora teased.
“Ask me again in a year,” Brett said wearily. “I don't think I am used to it yet.”
“Did you freak out your first time? I did.”
“Oh, hell yes. I knew it was coming,” Brett said. “I started to feel really irritable. Nauseous. And of course, most of the staff at the Lakes—” She dropped her voice down low, so she could not be heard beyond the confines of the table over the Sisters of Mercy grinding their guitars. “Most of the staff there have been through it on both sides. They're pretty knowledgeable. And sympathetic.”
“Must be a great bunch of people to work with,” Isadora guessed. “Kinky, too.”
“Kinky?” Carmen asked, and rolled her eyes. “Come on, Dora, it can't always be about sex with you.”
“Yeah, kinky,” Isadora insisted. “Brett said it herself. Most of them have been men and women. I'll bet they're really good in bed.” She turned toward Brett as if for confirmation.
Brett didn't know how to respond. “I wouldn't know,” she said at last. “I don't know if I'm the best person to ask.”
“You mean you haven't?” Tara asked, her face incredulous.
Now Brett was blushing. “Haven't what?” she asked, although she suspected she knew.
“Haven't jumped someone's bones,” Isadora said brightly. “Ridden on the pony. You know. Spread for some guy.”
“I have,” Brett said, blushing brighter. “The odd affair. But I haven't slept with any guys not at the Hotel. So I don't know if they're better than any other guys.”
“Oh,” Isadora said, disappointed.
Their waiter — a young stud by the name of Damon — brought them their dinners on a tray. Salads for Carmen and Tara, vegetables primavera for Brett, and a hamburger for Isadora.
“Girl, where do you put that food?” Carmen demanded. “If I ate like that, I'd blow up like a blimp.”
“I eat what I want and exercise. You starve yourself to stay skinny,” Isadora retorted. “You eat light. You work out. You tan. Does Frank appreciate it?”
Carmen didn't answer, but glowered across the table at her. To break the awkward moment, Tara returned to the previous subject matter. “You have affairs with your co-workers?”
“Sometimes,” Brett said, grateful to break up the moment. “Just meaningless flings. We know we're not right for each other. Not for the long term.”
“Ah,” Tara said, nodding sagely. “Because you're not a Match.”
“Right. So we just try to be right … for the evening,” Brett said.
Isadora looked thoughtful. “I wonder what it's like to sleep with somebody who's changed sex?”
Tara's smile was amused. “Don't you remember? You already have.”
“Denise,” Tara said wickedly.
“Denise?” Isadora asked. “Denise, the one who got married to Cody? What about her? I never slept with her.”
“Oh, yes you did,” Tara grinned. “Before everything changed, Denise used to be your boyfriend.”
Q♣ 7♥ A♥
Some time after Nadine Oba had gone to bed, and Russell Hyatt had gone back to gambling, Ursula Abrams found herself engrossed in conversation with two charming women. One charming woman, she corrected herself, and one somewhat prickly and self-conscious woman.
Maris, the lean and sober-faced black woman, was curious about lesbians in Hollywood. “Was there a lot of it back then? That you know of?”
“Wasn't really my scene, dear,” Ursula said with a faint smile. “Things were much more secretive back then. You signed on with a studio, and the studio controlled your publicity. It's been that way since the beginning. Mary Pickford got married. Twice,” she said, as if confiding a secret scandal. “But the public thought of her as this innocent little girl. So it was all kept very hush-hush.” She took a sip of her drink, an almost-virgin margarita that Elliott had prepared for her. “You didn't really speak of lesbians, then,” she went on, picking up the thread of Maris's question. “Sometimes you called it a Boston marriage.”
“Oh!” Maris's partner, Honor, sat up a little straighter. She had been slumping drunkenly to the table, trying to prop herself up with her hands. “Oh, Boston Marriage, yes, we saw that play. Who was that by? David Niven?”
“David Mamet,” Maris murmured.
“The maid was hilarious,” Honor declared.
“That's what it used to mean, Boston marriage,” Ursula explained to them. “Remember, this was all under the Hays Code. Even in your private life, if you were found to be indecent or immoral, you could be blacklisted. The studios had a lot of power, then. More than they do today.”
“Is that why you never married?” Maris asked politely.
“Oh, dear,” Ursula said, waving her away with a hand. “No. I never married because I was too busy working. Back in those days, you worked for the studio. It was hard being glamorous and having children. You just couldn't do both. I didn't get around to having a family until the seventies, and by then it was too late to have children. And, of course, I wasn't a star by then, not with this bad hip. I couldn't afford to be a Hollywood starlet. I always wanted to have children.” Ursula gave a melancholy sigh. “Ah, well. You do it when you can, that's my advice.”
“We've talked about it,” Maris said, caressing Honor's hand. “I'd really like to raise a child, but we can't agree on which one of us should carry it.”
“Have two, then, dear,” Ursula said with an innocent smile.
“That's not the problem,” Maris said. “Neither of us want to. We could, you know. We could probably find a—” she took a breath— “a sperm donor, but … I just don't think I could bring myself to ...”
“She had a bad experience with men when she was in high school,” Honor spoke up, somewhat foggily. “She hadn't come out, yet.”
“Not even to myself,” Maris said quietly.
“And so she was dating boys. That's what you're supposed to do,” Honor spat. “You keep thinking it's just a phase, that you'll get used to the idea. You want to think that you're normal.”
“Sometimes I'd sleep with a guy, and it'd be okay,” Maris recalled stiffly. “Then afterward, or next morning, I'd go into the bathroom and throw up. I just don't think I could do that again, not even for a baby.”
“There's always artificial,” Honor said, waving a drunken hand. “But we figure, pfft. Crap shoot, right? Never know what you're going to get.”
“No, that's right, you never do,” Ursula said wistfully. “If you're looking for a guarantee, you won't get one in this life. Trust me.”
There was a moment of silence between them, then Maris excused herself. “I need my cigarette,” she said. “I'll be right back.”
Honor contemplated the once-ravishing Hollywood beauty. “Was Barbara Stanwyck?”
“A lesbian? I don't know, dear. I never met her. You have to understand, so many of those women in Hollywood were very secretive. Sometimes they would meet together. Sewing circles, they called it. Most of them were even married,” Ursula recalled. “Sometimes to gay men.”
“Oh, a merkin,” Honor said dismissively.
“A merkin. Like a beard, but for lesbians?”
“They called it a lavender marriage,” Ursula said.
Honor nodded, her face troubled. “Yeah, I've heard of that term.”
Ursula patted her hand gently. “Is there something bothering you?”
The heavyset Chinese woman frowned, as if debating with herself, then pulled out a roughly folded piece of paper. It was the Hotel's brochure. “Did you read this?” Honor asked.
“The part about finding a perfect match?” Ursula said. “It's very sweet, but I'm sure it isn't true.”
“But what if it is?” Honor asked, worried. “What if my perfect match isn't Maris? Do you think the Hotel understands that I don't want to be with a man? I mean, just suppose,” she said, prematurely defensive. “Suppose it's true. What would it do?”
Ursula turned the idea over for a moment. “If it were me,” she said slowly, “I'd ask myself if I were happy the way things are.”
“I am,” Honor said, uneasily. “I guess. Things could always be better.”
“We can't get married,” Honor said. “We missed out. They passed a law in our state that means we can't get married. Damn,” she said, pounding the table. “Have you ever wondered if your life would have been so much easier if you had been a man?”
“Maris wouldn't have you, if you were a man,” Ursula said calmly. “Don't ask for something you don't really want.”
“Maybe if Maris was a man, we could be together. I guess.” Honor tried to dismiss the doubt from her voice. She had no idea why she was even discussing the subject with an almost-stranger. It was probably the alcohol talking.
“That's just borrowing trouble,” Ursula said, and took Honor's warm hands in her own across the table. “I don't think it's true. It's hard to believe in magic at my age, but why don't you wait and see if it's true? When it happens, if it happens, worry about it then. One day at a time.”
“Is that what works for you?” Honor asked.
“No,” Ursula smiled faintly. “To tell you the truth, I'm not sure anything does. But I know what doesn't work.”
Joker 8♥ 3♦ 8♠
Later that night, Dee Dee made it around to Winslow Carter's son, partially to see if he needed anything else, but largely because she was curious about the young man and his sister: black father and, from the looks of it, a white mother in absentia. The daughter, Aurora, seemed intelligent, healthy, and well-adjusted, if something of a daddy's girl. What would the son be like? Did he take after his mother? Would he leave the Hotel the same shape he arrived in? Could Dee Dee potentially be looking at a future staff-mate?
Kendrick Carter — she saw his license when she carded him — sat at ease on a black padded-vinyl barstool in front of a Bally Black & White Frenzy slot, his sister and her boyfriend together to one side. Though Kendrick paid little attention to the machine, he seemed totally in his element, brown eyes alert and scanning the room, smiling faintly. No king ever held court so casually. Kendrick was lithe and muscular, she could see that: his body was sculpted by an artfully snug black t-shirt bearing a grisly picture of Marilyn Manson and the singer's name in red gothic text. Somehow even sitting still, Kendrick managed to give the impression of a lion in the shade, lashing its tail.
Aurora she had already met, but the boy with his arm around her was a mystery. He was tall, and white, well-dressed and gorgeous: suave and poised in the same extreme way Kendrick was commanding and carnal. His name was Vance, or so she had overheard; he asked only for water, so she hadn't had the opportunity to examine his license in detail (bad Dee Dee! she thought to herself, you're not supposed to be picking up guests!). Vance seemed very energetic and demonstrative, but in a strangely rehearsed way, as if everything he said were carefully planned, and every one of Dee Dee's reactions noted. It was a facade, she concluded. But a facade for what? What was he hiding?
Were they really together? Dee Dee couldn't tell. Vance never seemed to look into her eyes, or rub her shoulder, or kiss her, or show any exaggerated signs of affection. That arm around the shoulder seemed more like a brother-sister thing than boyfriend-girlfriend. Not that Dee Dee was interested in him (bad Dee Dee!, she thought, and giggled to herself).
“We'll tell your aunt we've got it all planned out,” Vance said, mocking the sensuous tenor of a stereotyped effeminate hairdresser. His eyes bright and amused. “Church wedding, white dress. Bridesmaids in lilac. Lavender and plums for the centerpieces, we'll have cameras on the tables at the reception. She will just die.”
Kendrick and Aurora laughed at that. “My God, dude, you are just too good at that voice,” Kendrick said approvingly. “You must practice the hell out of it when I'm not looking.”
“You know it,” Vance said smugly, in something more like a normal tone.
“That's a good point, though, Vance,” Aurora said, squeezing his waist in her arm. “They're going to ask me when I'm getting married. At least I know Aunt Lena will, she always asks.”
“And if she thinks you're getting married to a white boy,” Kendrick said with slow relish, “she's really gonna freak. Pop said she almost had a heart attack as it was, when she found out he was marrying Mom.”
“Oh, no,” Aurora said, rolling her eyes. “I can hear it now. Couldn't I find a nice black man? Black men aren't good enough for me? Ugh. I wish this weekend were over already.”
Dee Dee chose this moment to sweep up and intrude. “Can I get you anything else?” she asked.
Their reactions were interesting, and different. Kendrick's eyes flickered first to her bursting bikini top, and then to her face. Aurora, her mouth set unconsciously in an expression of disapproval, sought eye contact, then dropped down to her outfit, then to her hair. But Vance started by looking at her—
“Jelly shoes?” Vance asked archly.
“I needed something pink,” she said, flattered that he had noticed. Nobody else had commented on her footwear.
“Nobody needs pink that badly,” Vance quipped.
Aurora laughed. “Don't give her a hard time, Van, I bet that outfit gets uncomfortable enough. Are those hard plastic?” she asked, reaching out a hand toward Dee Dee's seashell cups. “May I?”
“Sure,” Dee Dee assented, and Aurora rapped one of the seashells with her knuckles.
“Ouch, I'll bet that really chafes,” Aurora said, not sounding terribly sympathetic. She herself was so very lean and underendowed, there would be nothing to chafe, but Dee Dee was too polite to mention it. Not that long ago, Dee Dee's own body had been nothing to boast about.
“A little,” Dee Dee said, and grinned. “Great conversation starter, though. Oh,” she said, artfully sounding as if it were an afterthought, “can I get you anything?”
The three exchanged a look between them, but the final judgment seemed to be up to Kendrick. “I think we're just about done for the night,” he said. “Thanks for the offer.”
It was a definite dismissal, and Dee Dee's curiosity was still unsatisfied. Hoping to prod a hint loose, she gave them a big smile. “Good luck with your family reunion tomorrow. I can't wait to hear about the wedding.”
There was a definite chill in the air. Aurora's smile was polite and distant, Vance's bemused. Kendrick gave her a curt nod and another conversation-stopper: “Thanks for your help. We're going to be heading back to our rooms.”
Strike one, thought Dee Dee, bemused. Why don't we see if we can frighten anybody else out of the casino tonight?
She managed not to alarm her next guest, a clean-shaven white guy in his thirties with his hair slicked carefully back with styling gel. He had a neutral gray jacket over one arm, tee-shirt, and Dockers. One brown leather work boot was propped on the rungs of his stool, and forgotten in one hand was his drink, neatly wrapped in a napkin. The man idly scanned the Friday night casino crowd, completely disregarding the video blackjack machine beside him.
“Your ice is melting,” Dee Dee chirped at him. “Can I perk you up?”
His eyes leapt to her sparkling skirt, then crawled up her body to her face, lingering at her overstuffed bikini. “I think you can,” he said, and turned on a friendly smile.
“Perk up your drink,” Dee Dee chided him. “Bad man.”
His smile never wavered. “That's me. I'm a bad man. My mama didn't raise me right.”
“So can I freshen up your drink?”
“Yes. Martini, no gin,” he said, handing it over. “On the rocks.”
“That's a strange way to drink a martini,” Dee Dee said doubtfully, taking the glass and disentangling the soggy napkin.
“That's the way I like 'em,” the man said. The smile disappeared, as completely as if it had been unplugged.
“No no,” Dee Dee laughed. “I mean the napkin. Look, it's all wet now.”
“Ah, that,” he said. He hesitated a moment too long before saying, “Germs. I don't want the germs.”
“I can get someone to wipe down that machine, if you like,” Dee Dee offered.
He shook his head. “Don't worry about it, I'm not playing it.”
“I'll be right back.”
“Miss?” he called after her.
Dee Dee stopped and looked over her shoulder. “Yes?”
“Garvin Danbury,” he said. “Room 428.”
“It's okay, Mr. Danbury,” Dee Dee smiled at him. “This isn't charged to your room. Cocktails are complimentary on the casino floor.”
Again, his smile lighted up: innocent and charismatic and guileless, as suddenly as if a switch had been thrown. “I meant … for later,” Danbury said suggestively.
“I'm afraid not,” Dee Dee said, and sighed theatrically. It was so annoying when the male patrons tried to pick up on her — and the female ones, for that matter. Didn't the read the brochure? “I couldn't do it. Fraternizing with the guests is a no-no.”
“Nobody needs to know,” Danbury said.
“You are a bad man,” she mock-scolded him.
“That's me,” Danbury said, and the smile vanished again. “My mama didn't raise me right.”
Dee Dee left for the bar to place Danbury's special drink order. It wouldn't occur to her until much later to wonder if he had been hiding anything under that jacket.
7♦ Q♣ 7♥
Maris and Honor had not had a good day. The laws of probability had not been kind to Honor in the casino, and Maris refused to allow Honor to squander more money chasing her losses. She didn't refuse Honor unkindly, just in that cool, measured manner that Honor so often found condescending. Maris firmly believed that gambling was a waste of money and, true to her nature, was not afraid to say so firmly. Honor admitted as much, but could not Maris to understand that the thrill, the risk of loss and the possibility of victory could still be entertaining.
In addition, Honor still harbored some low-grade worry over the Lakes Hotel pamphlet she had read. Naturally, Maris dismissed it as mere Vegas showmanship: again, not unkindly, but with the veiled suggestion that she considered herself slightly above anyone foolish enough to believe it. On any other occasion, Honor would respect and adore the calm, collected logic and strength of Maris's convictions. It was comforting to lean on her wisdom, to rely upon her stability. Today, Honor was only irked, belittled. She did not wish to be patted upon the head and instructed to disregard fairy tales. She wanted to be reassured that everything between them was well.
Maris also wasn't enjoying herself as much as she might. This trip was ostensibly for business; Peak Performance Technical had sent her and her boss to Las Vegas to participate in a seminar on sexual harassment. Why they had chosen to hold such a seminar in Las Vegas was a mystery. Maris guessed that the venue had been booked by senior management in the firm who wished to tie the mandatory training into a corporate-sponsored mini-vacation. Honor, more cynical, suggested that the senior vice presidents needed somewhere to practice their sexual harassment before they could be adequately cured of it.
She had spent Friday afternoon in dreary classes watching a room full of white junior executives nod sagaciously at one another, and pretended she hadn't noticed all the surreptitious glances in her direction. As a black woman and a lesbian, she represented the trifecta of taboo: the embodiment of every possible workplace pitfall waiting to happen. In truth, Maris was not easy to offend; in her forty years she had tamed the reactionary side of her personality. She was as cool under pressure as Honor was not. Maris smiled and took notes and nodded as sagaciously as the rest of them. The seminars were a tiny step in the right direction, she felt, but only that. A symbol. Why don't you hire some black female junior executives? she found herself thinking from behind her professional mask. That would go a lot farther than these damn stupid seminars.
It was draining for her. The cool facade would have to remain in place for the duration of the weekend. She knew she was the token black woman in the room, a mere executive assistant in a room full of private-washroom assigned-parking MBAs. She felt it safe to assume that her behavior must be exemplary, even if that of the junior execs was not. One grotesque error by a white man would whisper; a tiny slip by a black woman would speak volumes. Such constant vigilance meant she wasn't as available to Honor as either would have liked. Maris would have to make it up to her, someday soon.
Yes, Maris thought as she helped Honor weave tipsily back to the elevators. I'm going to have to find a way to pay her back for this weekend. They're not just watching me, they're watching her too. It's been hard for both of us.
It was about to get worse.
Schuyler Byerly also had not had a good day. His plane had been delayed on the tarmac for two hours because someone's luggage hadn't been placed on board. He might still have arrived on time, but he drove too far through the Las Vegas streets and ended up on East Sahara instead of West Sahara. As a result, he had missed registration and check-in for the Peak Performance seminar. Deb from Human Resources had given him a stony look as he entered the room late, and had exchanged quiet words with the Assistant Comptroller. Byerly was certain it was about him, and was dreading the conversation he knew must be coming: The CEO of Peak Performance Technical tells me we are looking to become a leaner organization, Mr. Byerly, he could hear in Deb's voice. Shall I tell him that I've found a way to cut some money out of the budget?
After the seminar, Schuyler was feeling miserable, exiled from the group. The eyes of the others were like knives, accusing him, blaming him. His secretary Maris was a rock, as usual, and tried to raise his spirits, but all he could think of was how badly he had screwed up. Schuyler's mind kept returning to the Pahrump brochure in his jacket pocket. Ninety minutes away by car, that was hardly any time at all. Prostitution was legal in Nye County, the girl at the hotel had said.
He didn't need a prostitute. Mistress Jaclyn would have his balls in a vise if he ever called her a prostitute in her presence. Yes, surely she would punish him, he mused wistfully. She would tell him how foolish he had been that day. She was scrupulous about the law, and never laid a finger upon him. The twisted genius of Mistress Jaclyn, for which he adored and obeyed her, was that she didn't punish him. She made him punish himself. His would be the hand on the vise.
But after driving in the desert heat and rush-hour traffic to Pahrump he could not find a mistress who would properly chastise him. He had no appointment, he had no references here. It was a busy weekend, a Friday, and there were no openings for him. Byerly drove back seventy-five miles in the silence of self-loathing and rejection. He had been refused.
When he returned to the hotel he headed for the bar. Tomorrow was another six hours of seminars, but not beginning until late morning, and he could afford a few drinks tonight. Then a few more. For a short time he was entranced by the busty figure of the croupier at the roulette wheel, a gorgeous blonde with a Hawaiian shirt tied off between the breasts. She wielded her rake briskly and brooked no nonsense at the table.
Byerly asked her if she was similarly skilled with a riding crop. Again, his overtures were rejected.
That is why Maris and Honor encountered him outside on the path by the lake, stumbling drunk and red-eyed, feeling lonely and sorry for himself.
They were returning to their bungalow along the lakeside after dark. The artificial eastern lake shimmered a roiling reflection of palm trees and moonlight back up to them, scattering stars in all directions. Cedar-sided cabins gleamed blue in the dim, unreal light all around the edge of the lake. Insects hummed in the trees. It was almost possible to ignore the sounds of the Strip that drifted in on the still, sage-breeze Nevada winds. A persistent neon glow filled the western night sky.
“Hey there, Mare,” Schuyler said foggily, weaving left and stumbling into a waist-high picket fence. “Some shit, huh? This place. Nice. Hmm?”
Honor tugged at Maris's elbow. “Come on, let's go.”
“It's all right,” Maris said politely, patting her partner's hand in reassurance. She had never seen her boss in this state: unsteady, on the verge of collapse, and miserable. She wasn't sure whether to feel embarrassed on his behalf, contempt for his drunkenness, or pity for his obvious despair. “We missed you at the start of the seminar today.”
“Yeah,” Schuyler said with a heavy sigh. “I saw you all looking as I came in. Fucked up, huh? Drove the wrong fuckin' way.”
He didn't seem inclined to add anything, but neither did he seem prepared to leave them, so Maris asked, “What do you think of this place?”
“They're going to fire me, aren't they?” Schuyler blurted out. “Company's going to shit. Gonna fire me because I was late. I saw her looking at me. Deb.”
“From Human Resources,” Maris nodded. Honor tugged at her elbow again, but she hushed her.
“That your girlfriend?” Schuyler asked. He tried to push himself upright, using the fence, and peered at them both in the mercury-lit gloom. His sudden drunken attention gave Honor the shivers, reminding her of past encounters with men best forgotten. A phrase from the seminar flashed into his inebriated awareness, and he tried to slur a correction. “Sorry. Not girlfriend. Sin … g'nifican. Other.”
“Of course,” Maris said calmly, and introduced them. “Honor, this is my boss, Schuyler Byerly. He prefers to be called Sky. Sky, this is Honor, my partner.”
“Pleased … meet you,” Schuyler attempted, after a few slow blinks.
“Great,” Honor said ungraciously. She didn't like this man's probing, unashamed stares, and wanted to get back to the relative safety of their bungalow. The man was so intoxicated he was almost incapacitated, and it was obvious that if he continued to lean on the picket fence — it was pushed far out of alignment, and quavering — that he or it would collapse, or possibly both.
“Which one of you is the boy?” Schuyler asked suddenly.
Honor gaped at him. He had asked the question without a trace of shame or social grace, and his face was blankly inquiring. He has no idea how offensive he is, does he? she asked herself. How is that possible?
She was about to deliver a scathing retort, to let Maris's boss know what she thought of him, come what may. Hell, he probably wouldn't remember it tomorrow. Before she could speak, Maris cut her off smoothly.
“Neither one of us, Sky,” she said quietly. “We're lesbians.”
“I can't believe—” Honor began.
“I mean, which one of you is … in charge? The butch one. Is it her?” Schuyler asked, peering owlishly at Honor again.
Maris refused to become upset, and kept her voice low and reassuring. “Schuyler, you're drunk. This isn't the time or place for questions like that. I believe you were in room 611?”
“Maris,” Honor began again, more heatedly. “Are you just going to stand her and let this asshole flip us shit?”
“I need somebody to tell me how bad I fucked up,” Schuyler said, his voice breaking. “I'm so bad. I was late today. I fucked up. Tell me how bad I am.”
Maris took a deep breath, and to Honor's lasting shock, she said, “Yes, you fucked up today, Sky. What happened? You drove the wrong way? I printed out directions from the hotel to the conference. Didn't you read it? I gave it to you with your boarding pass and your hotel reservation.”
“You're so good to me,” Schuyler moaned. “I don't deserve it. You're the best. Sectarian. Best … sec'tary. You told me just what to do, and I fucked it up.”
“Yes, you did,” Maris said soothingly. She stepped away from Honor and took Schuyler around the shoulders in one arm. “Now let's get you off to bed.”
“Okay,” Schuyler said. He sounded like a lost child.
“Maris,” Honor said indignantly, standing alone on the lakeside path like an abandoned bride. “What the fuck are you doing? Let him find his own way.”
“I'm helping him get back to his room,” Maris replied. “He'll never find his own way.”
“Who cares? He's an asshole.”
“You don't know him, Honor. He's a decent man, I've just never seen him like this.”
Honor folded her arms and glared.
“Love,” Maris said, “we all do foolish things when we're drunk. I'm not going to take this personally.”
“He's harassing us,” Honor fumed. “Harassing you. You could get him fired for that.”
“I'm really bad,” Schuyler mumbled, forgotten by both of them and nearly dead to the world himself.
“I could,” Maris admitted. “Then what would happen to my job?”
“They wouldn't fire you,” Honor declared, but with an edge of doubt to her drunken certainty. “You're too damned … working hard. Staying late. You're too responsible.”
“Yes,” Maris said firmly. “And that's why I'm going to help him back to his room. I feel responsible. He's a decent man, and he needs someone to help him right now.”
Honor's lip twisted. “You heard him. He doesn't want help, he wants a dom. You prepared to do that for him too?”
“Who are we to judge what he likes?” Maris asked blandly. “There's nothing wrong with dom-sub, anyway. Heather and Sal—”
“I don't care about them!” Honor cried angrily. Her voice echoed across the lake and back. “I don't care about him either. You just go take him back. Whip him, beat him, tuck him into bed for all I care. I thought we were on vacation.”
Honor stormed away down the path toward Bungalow Twelve. It didn't help her temper any to remember that Maris was the one with the key to the door.
8♥ 3♦ 8♠
Kendrick Carter led the way to the elevators. Even though he, his sister Aurora, and Vance were walking long side by side and talking, and though Vance was in the center, there was no doubt Kendrick was leading. He was always just slightly ahead, and he never failed to point the way. That was something Vance had noticed about him in their long years of friendship: Kendrick was never lost, or at a loss, always at his confident ease, never uncertain.
It was a very attractive quality, Vance thought. Kendrick had a commanding presence. If only—
“Are you looking forward to the reunion, Rora?” Kendrick asked his sister.
“I would be more,” Aurora said, “if I knew Mom were going to be there. I can't believe she skipped out on this. This is her side of the family.”
“I thought your parents were trying to get back togther,” Vance suggested carefully.
“Yeah,” Kendrick drawled. “The word is—” Vance joined in, saying— “trying.”
“Jinx, buy me a Coke,” Vance said automatically.
“Buy you a Coke? I'll buy you a Coke on your ass,” Kendrick said, cracking a genial smile.
Aurora rolled her eyes. “Will you boys be serious? You're embarrassing me. It's okay if you do this at home—”
“We're embarrassing you on your ass,” Vance said immediately.
“Stop it!” Aurora laughed. “And don't say stop it on your ass. I'm serious. You're supposed to be my boyfriend.”
“He's supposed to be your boyfriend—” Kendrick grinned.
“Shut up!” Aurora, said, doubling over in giggles. She had had too much to drink. “Don't say it. Look, can't you at least pretend to be my boyfriend?”
Vance looked confused. “I thought I was.”
“Everyone's going to want to know why you're with us,” Aurora said, mastering her laughter. She really was quite beautiful when she was being imperious. Her dusky skin was clear and clean, her eyes wide, her features a pleasing blend of ethnicities. “What are we going to say? Either you're going to be my boyfriend, or you're going to be Kendrick's.”
“Why don't you just say I'm a long-lost brother?” Vance asked, amused.
“Dude, you're white,” Kendrick pointed out.
“That's okay,” Vance said with a straight face. “We won't tell them.”
“Ah, clever,” Kendrick said in a mock-wise voice, playing along. “Even so, they're going to suspect.”
“Don't worry, brother,” Vance said, dropping his voice half an octave into a mock-ghetto voice. “I got that shit covered.”
Kendrick looked pained, and turned to his sister. “Aurora,” he said in a reedy, petulant voice like a whining child, “he's blacker than me. Make him stop.”
“Boys,” Aurora said sternly, blushing. It was always so embarrassing to be around them in public.
“I'll make him stop on your ass,” Vance said, and Kendrick howled with laughter.
They had known each other for years as distant neighbors. Only by happy accident did they meet in elementary school, in an advanced reading program, only to later find they were within bicycling distance of each other. Kendrick and Vance played in youth soccer together, making a devastating combination of forwards. As they grew up, they moved into baseball, Kendrick catching and calling every game, and Vance pitching from the mound.
Vance, with his athletic presence and his well-dressed charm, defended Kendrick in the early days when he had been teased for his mixed-race parents. Later, in high school, Kendrick defended Vance when students became suspicious that Vance was gay.
It was no suspicion. Vance had struggled with his sexuality for years, and Kendrick was the first person he had ever told. Kendrick, never uncertain about anything, had accepted it calmly, as if he had already known. Afterward, their friendship was, if possible, even stronger.
Kendrick dated girls a few times throughout high school, but none of them ever stuck. Vance, too, had his share of on-again off-again boyfriends. They commiserated with each other over their relationships as they played pool, or practiced at the batting cage, or traded bawdy jokes and bought each other beers. When it was time for college, each consulted the other before deciding to go to UCLA. There was never any question that despite their differences they would share a dorm room.
“You boys are incorrigible,” Aurora said, trying to sound miffed.
Vance and Kendrick exchanged a look. “That's a nice two-dollar word,” Kendrick suggested.
“Maybe a dollar fifty,” Vance countered. “Makes us sound like cardboard.”
“That's corrugated,” Aurora laughed, slapping Vance's shoulder.
“Besides,” Kendrick went on, as if they had never dropped their previous conversation, “what are we going to tell them, the truth? Vance is here because Mom flaked out and wouldn't come, and Pop was too cheap to pay the fee and change our reservations at the last minute?”
“She'll be here,” Aurora insisted, with more confidence than she felt. “She's just busy.”
“She's always busy,” Kendrick said flatly. “That's Mom. Career comes first.”
Aurora frowned. “Ken, they're working on it.”
“Mom's always working on something,” her brother said in a deceptively mild voice.
They arrived at the elevators, and Kendrick pressed the button. The elevator banks hummed as the cars moved in their shafts.
“Look, I'm confused,” Vance said, adopting his over-the-top hairdresser voice. “Am I saying I'm your Mom?”
“Dude, you are way too good at that voice,” Kendrick said, grinning.
“Don't talk to your mother that way,” Vance admonished him.
“If you do that voice tomorrow,” Kendrick said, amused, “nobody's going to believe you're Rora's boyfriend.”
Aurora's eyes lighted up. “Oh, but if he did,” she said excitedly, clapping her hands together, “that would Aunt Lena really freak out.”
“That would totally be worth it,” Kendrick said. He was already gloating.
“Worth not having your mom here?” Vance asked.
“She'll be here,” Aurora said, as the elevator dinged.
9♣ 10♣ Q♥ 2♠
The bachelor party rolled into the Lakes Hotel at ten thirty, radio blaring and all of them singing along to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy in at least two different keys. Quincy Todd was driving Frank and Carmen Griffith's black RAV4 with an occasional steely grimace. Three drunken groomsmen could make a tremendous noise, and had been doing so for the better part of the evening.
They had driven three hundred miles from Oceanside and had begun to prowl the Strip for free drinks, lap dances, and strip clubs. Frank had an unerring eye to spot anything that bubbled, fizzed, bounced, or jiggled, and he dragged Xavier, the groom-to-be, through a whole array of nightclubs and casinos and titty bars.
It was only ten thirty. The night was quite young. Quincy told himself there would only be a few more hours of this tonight, before he could finally crash into his hotel bed. Then tomorrow they would set a slower pace, he hoped. They couldn't drink all day — well, Frank could, but the rest of them didn't have the constitution for it. They weren't teenagers any more. Certainly Xavier couldn't drink any more tonight. He had the bright, glassy look in his eye, and the flushed cheeks, that Quincy recognized as Xavier's last stage before incapacity.
Quincy parked the RAV4. It took the other groomsmen several awkward minutes to finish singing the song — their timing deteriorated noticeably after the in-dash MP3 player was shut off — and to stagger awkwardly to their feet outside the car.
“Come on, guys,” Quincy said wearily. He glanced up and saw a lighted hotel window, and the silhouette of a woman looking down at them. With an irritable jerk of the cord, she closed her curtains. “Look. There's probably people trying to sleep here.”
“Oh, yeah! Right. N'kay, everybody be quiet,” Frank said in a grotesquely loud whisper.
“Right. Shhhh.” Xavier Knight, single for two more days, sprayed saliva on Frank.
“Fuck you, dude, you're spitting on me!”
Xavier managed to find his lips with a finger. “Shhhh! Quiet, man!”
Together the two drunken revelers made as much noise being quiet as three Marx Brothers and two Stooges as they shushed each other, pushing and shoving, falling down more than once and cursing each other, all the way up to the Lakes Hotel lobby.
Trailing behind them with a morose expression was Luis Morales, his collar open and his tie loosened. He was the only one of the four to dress formally for the evening, but that was Luis to a tee: formal, reserved, always observant of protocol. Quincy suspected that Luis was here only because the bachelor party was such a profound American tradition, and for Xavier's friendship, rather than for any particular lingering love of hangovers. Luis had gotten that out of his system years ago.
The clerk behind the desk at this late hour was a sweet-faced young lady by the name of Hannah, who pushed aside Us magazine as the bachelor party struggled to make it across the lobby carpet in a straight line.
“Well, pull my hair and call me Sally!” Frank declared, eyeing Hannah and her too-tight tank top. It was one of his favorite sayings, and Quincy had lost count of how many times he had heard it over the course of the evening. “Are you getting off any time soon?”
“Not tonight,” she said coolly, giving him a frosty look.
“You're married, jackass,” Xavier said, pushing Frank's shoulder.
Frank staggered to catch his balance, and pushed Xavier back. “So are you. In two days.”
“Three days,” Xavier protested, mortified. “Not until Monday.”
Hannah gave them a bored sigh. “Do you have a reservation?” she drawled sardonically. “Or do you want to sleep out in the trash?”
“Girl, that's not very nice,” Frank said, leaning on the counter, impervious to her disgust. He actually thinks he's getting somewhere with her, Quincy thought, both amazed and revolted.
“Excuse me, miss,” Luis said, stepping forward and pushing Frank away from the counter. “He's had too much to drink tonight.”
Hannah sniffed. “Really.”
“Come on, man, I was just going to talk to her,” Frank complained.
“Then stop talking to her chest,” Luis suggested.
“Miss,” Quincy said, “We have reservations in the name of Frank Griffith.”
Hannah leveled an antique stare at him for a moment, before deciding Quincy was serious. She tapped at the registration computer. “All right. I have your reservations here. Frank Griffith, two nights, three rooms.”
“Three rooms?” Frank said from across the lobby. Luis had him wrapped up from behind in his arms, and he was struggling. “I didn't want three rooms.”
Hannah didn't bat an eye. “That's what it says here. One room for you two, one room for these two, and one room for Jack Daniels and Jim Beam.”
“Hey, that's funny,” Frank said with a wide grin, still trying to disentangle himself from Luis's grip. “I like girls that are funny.”
“Give it up, Frank,” Luis said. “She thinks you're about as funny as a bowl of oatmeal.”
“Two rooms,” Hannah said, ignoring Frank and Luis. “Fourth floor, twenty-eight and thirty.” She jerked a thumb at Frank and lowered her voice, speaking only to Xavier and Quincy. “I can get you one that locks from the outside if you want.”
“That won't do,” Quincy answered with a straight face. “He's the best man.”
Hannah raised an eyebrow.
“Sounds like a paradox, now that I say it out loud,” Quincy said, furrowing his brow artfully.
The desk clerk beamed at him, her sweet face illuminating the room. “Not bad,” she said. In a louder voice, she said so the others could hear, “All right, come sign for your room keys.”
“If you can,” Quincy said, under his breath. Xavier nudged him.
They signed the hotel registration forms. Xavier's signature straggled childishly below the dotted line, but somehow Frank's was letter perfect. Lots of practice signing bar tabs, Quincy thought to himself.
“Hey,” Frank said, taking a few unsteady steps from the counter. “I can hear the casino, down this way. Let's go get a drink.”
“Oh, no,” Xavier said, holding up a forestalling hand. “No, man, I could not drink any more tonight. I'm gonna pass out.”
“Come on, one drink,” Frank urged the groom-to-be. “You're gonna be married, man. When are you ever gonna get to do this again? Live it up!”
“Dude, you are married,” Luis said, somehow bemused and disapproving. “Carmen lets you go out like this?”
“She doesn't care,” Frank said breezily. “She's fine with it. She staying home right now. Watching Sex in the City or some shit.”
“Desperate Housewives,” Quincy said archly.
“Yeah, some shit like that. Come on, Xave, let's go have a drink.” He grabbed Frank's outstretched hand and dragged him in the direction of the casino noises.
“Looks like we're getting the bags, Luis,” Quincy said hopefully.
Luis watched the groom-to-be and the best man depart, his face unreadable. Then he sighed. “Yeah, let's get the bags up to the rooms.”
From the registration counter, Hannah said, “You might want to make two trips.”
“No,” Quincy said, shaking his head. “There's only four bags. We can get them all in one.”
“For them,” Hannah suggested, thumbing in the direction of the casino.
“Oh, that. Look, I'm sorry,” Quincy said, crossing back to the counter briefly. “Frank's a good guy, he can just be an ass sometimes.”
Hannah cracked a smile. “Are you sure you got that the right way around?”
Quincy grinned in return. “It's just sometimes the way he acts makes me embarrassed to be a man.”
The girl's sweet smile became broader. “Happily,” she said, handing him a historical brochure on the Lakes Hotel, “I don't think you should worry about that.”
♠ ♣ ♥ ♦
Night settled over the Lakes Hotel. Visitors returned to their rooms, drew back the sheets, turned out the lights. Slowly, the traffic in the casino dwindled down to only the hardest of the die-hards. Staff shifts ended. The cabana bar closed down, all its tables cleaned and the chairs upended.
The neon aura of the Strip to the west would glow all night: for most of Las Vegas, the casinos never closed their doors and the bars never closed. From dawn until dusk, from dusk until the following day, the Sin City spectacle would continue. Slot machines would devour coins by the tens and dispense only a tithe, converting prodigality to parsimony through probability. Peddlers on street corners passed out pamphlets for prostitutes. Tomorrow would bring more of the same.
Desert winds blew out of the Mojave across the Lakes, rustling the leaves of the coconut palms that ringed the ponds and pools. Cicadas thrummed in the treetops. Moonlight fell upon the ceremonial chapel at the lake's edge, scattering its reflection in the water.
When the Lakes had been the Honeymoon Hotel, the Chapel had been the center of activity every weekend. As many as five couples were married there some days, husbands and wives joined together in joyous matrimony. The lakeside lawn had once seen arches and festive bunting and flowers, streamers and silk and lace.
Now, the chapel was an office. The lawn held gardening sheds for landscaping equipment, un-romantic lawnmowers and rakes and leaf-blowers. There had been no lace for years, no wedding registries, no exchange of vows. But, as night passed stealthily by the Lakes Hotel, the match-making continued.
Honor and Maris had gone to bed still brimming with their frustrations. Honor felt abused and ignored, taken for granted, and alone. Her partner still had on her business face, cool and aloof, even though the two of them had a private bungalow all to themselves. Maris couldn't make Honor appreciate that this was more a business trip than a holiday, an opportunity to prove to the eyes and ears of the company that she and her partner were, despite not being white, male, or straight, upstanding and trustworthy people.
They woke together the following morning to the sound of Maris's portable alarm clock. As her mind rose from the sticky tendrils of sleep, Honor registered the changes slowly. It was Saturday, not a normal working day. Dawn poured in through the cracks in the curtains — curtains? At home, venetian blinds — and her hangover left her unprepared to cope with the brightness. Somewhere nearby, the alarm continued its rhythmic buzz. These sheets, too, were different from those at home, linen instead of silk. Maris lay behind her in spoon position, her arm curled around Honor's waist.
There was a strange smell in the room.
It was the smell which woke Honor quickest, after the noise of the alarm: musky, powerful, and masculine. Why would she smell this scent so strongly? Was there a man in their bungalow?
She slipped her hand over Maris's for the comfort it would bring her—
It was not her hand. It was a man's hand, large and warm. It stealthily withdrew, and behind her, she could hear the man rolling over to slap the alarm, killing the insistent buzz. She was in bed with a man.
Startled into full wakefulness, Honor kicked away the blankets, thrashing her feet to get untangled, crying out in fear. She made it to her feet and backed away to the wall, facing the bed, acutely aware that she was nude.
The man was sitting up in bed now, looking at her in surprise. He was black, powerful, and bald, possibly in his mid-thirties, intimidating in a way Honor couldn't define. He radiated strength.
“What the hell are you doing in here?” Honor demanded, gasping. “What are you doing in my room?”
“Honor?” the man asked, concerned. “What's wrong with you?”
“What's wrong with me?” she asked, and belatedly it occurred to her to wonder whether she was in the right room. There were her things on the nightstand, there was her suitcase. “Am I in the right place?” she babbled, mostly to herself. “This is my room, right?”
“Honor,” the man said again, looking her over with a look in his eye that she didn't like. “What happened to you?”
“To me? What are you talking about?” Honor glanced down at herself.
It had escaped her notice in the frantic struggle to get out of bed, away from him, but she was light now: tiny and delicate, trim and feminine. Gone were the folds of fat, gone were the heavy thighs and double chin. She hadn't been this thin since — since at least junior high, when she first began to realize she didn't care all that much what the boys thought of her, since she first began to gain wait as a defense against their prying eyes.
“What the hell?” she breathed.
“Oh, my God,” the man said, evidently undergoing a realization of his own. “Honor, look at me — I turned into a man!”
“Maris?” she asked, unable to keep her lip from curling in disgust. “You're … you're a man?”
“I think you were right,” the black man said slowly, looking at his hands and turning them over. “The Hotel. That brochure. Do you think it's ...”
“Trying to make the perfect match?” Honor asked with consternation. “I don't know — not like this. I couldn't —”
“I know,” the man said with surprising tenderness. “I know.”
“Why did it do this?” Honor demanded. More than anything, she wanted to grab a sheet from the bed, something to hide her body with, but she didn't dare get closer to this man — this man who had just had his arm around her, in her own bed. Her knees trembled at the thought. “I don't want a man,” she said, plaintively. “Why did it do this?”
“Maybe it knew I was the butch,” Maris said, working it out in his head. “Maybe it thought I should be the man.”
“And so it made me into a pretty girl for you?” Honor asked, an edge of bitterness in her voice. “Nice. Do I get any say in this little fantasy?”
He looked hurt. “Honor, I didn't ask for this.”
She laughed harshly and gestured roughly at his body. “I definitely didn't ask for that.”
“My God,” Maris said again, running a hand over his smooth scalp. He looked up at her. “I'm bald?”
She nodded shortly.
“You've changed, too,” he noted, trying to sound casual. “It looks good—”
“Stop looking at me,” Honor hissed at him. “You're freaking me out.”
Maris seemed to deflate, and turned his gaze away. “I'm sorry.”
“Sorry?” Honor laughed crazily. “Sorry for what? You didn't do this. You can't undo it.” While Maris's back was turned, she stepped to the side and snatched up a silken hotel bathrobe with the Lakes emblem embroidered on the breast, and slipped it on hurriedly, tying the belt into a secure knot. It made her feel a little better, at least.
“I'm sorry I wasn't listening to you yesterday,” he mumbled. “You were trying to tell me about the brochure. I blew it off. I was too busy thinking about the seminar ...”
“Well, I'm glad you're sorry,” Honor said nastily. “That makes me feel much better.”
“Oh, shit, the seminar,” Maris said, smacking his head with his palm. “I'm supposed to be there at nine-thirty. What am I going to tell Schuyler?”
Honor's jaw dropped. “I can't believe this,” she said, hurt and amazed. “You're still thinking of going to that goddamned thing? Can't you see what's happened to us? And you're going to go?”
“Do you really want me hanging around here like this?” Maris shot back.
Honor's mouth worked, but she had no answer.
“At any rate, I've got to go tell him,” Maris said, more softly. “Tell him I can't make it today, or something.”
“He's not going to recognize you,” Honor pointed out.
“I'll leave him a note on his door. Unless you'd rather call?”
Honor crossed her arms defiantly.
“All right then,” Maris said in a weary voice. “I'll leave him a note.”
Maris excused himself to go take a shower and Honor sat down, shaking, on the edge of the bed. What had happened? The brochure had never said anything about—
It was still on her nightstand where she had left it. She reached across the bed and plucked it from beneath her watch with her outstretched fingertips, marveling at how easily such a movement came to her. Had she ever been this light, this flexible, this slender?
She found the passage and read it aloud over the thudding sound of the shower in the next room. “Our guests may rest assured that the Hotel wants nothing more than to see you in a lasting, loving relationship with your perfect partner, whoever that may be.” She tweaked the corner of the page thoughtfully.
Whoever that may be, she thought. Maybe it thinks we're not meant to be together. It's true that Maris and me don't always get along, but don't they say that a good relationship is about compromise? Meeting in the middle?
If so, she reflected, neither one of them had moved very far toward the center. Maris was calm, capable, professional, and outstanding at working within the framework given to her by society. She had risen in the company — true, she was only an executive assistant, but at a very high level, and she had fashioned herself a career in spite of her distaste for the white male bureaucracy which make it possible. Honor knew she could never do that, could never keep her opinions to herself. That's why she worked in the basement of the county hospital, running what was nicely termed the Hospitality Department — laundry and food services. She would never be the level-headed professional wife that Maris deserved.
When Maris finished his shower they discovered another surprise. All of the clothing they had brought with them had changed. Everything in Honor's luggage was now skin-tight and slinky, petite, size zero, instead of shapeless, baggy, male-cut clothing. Maris's suitcase was now filled with menswear: carefully pressed shirts, ties in bold fall colors, slacks.
“Everything's changed,” Maris said in wonder, looking down at his selection of ties.
“Yeah,” Honor said grudgingly. “I guess so.”
“And look,” Maris said, reaching for his nightstand. “A wallet.”
The identification proclaimed him Marcus Barnhardt, and showed a respectable picture of Maris's new masculine face. His birthdate was the same, but the birth year was six years off. Maris thumbed through the wallet, amazed as much by the things which hadn't changed as those which had. Pictures of family, social security number, business cards—
Maris pulled one out and showed it to Honor. “I guess I got promoted.”
“Junior executive,” she read in a distant voice. “Congratulations.”
He shook his head. “It's not as if I earned it.”
“Actually, I think you did,” Honor said simply, handing it back. “You worked, you put in your time. I'd say you deserve it.”
Maris returned the card to his wallet. “I'd better go,” he said, taking half a step toward her, then changing his mind. “We'll have to talk about this tonight when I get back.”
Honor swallowed, and nodded. Quickly, she slipped forward and gave Maris a hug and a kiss — he deserved that much. She drew away before it became awkward. “Tonight,” she promised. “If I'm still here.”
“Why wouldn't you be?” Maris asked, the hurt look coming back to his face.
“Look at us,” Honor said, gesturing vaguely with her hands. “The Hotel changed us. Who would've thought?”
“You did,” Maris said. “I didn't listen.”
Honor bowed her head, accepting the apology. “Anything can happen. If you're not my perfect match any more, who is?”
9♣ 10♣ Q♥ 2♠
Quincy Todd woke up shortly after dawn with strange half-remembered dreams in his head, images which scurried into the corners of his memory, hiding away from the light like roaches. Something about looking for something, or for someone. Something about a sword — the sword of justice? He couldn't quite recall.
Yesterday had been a trial. He had never been more than a casual drinker, not for years, so he hadn't felt deprived by volunteering to be the designated driver for Xavier's bachelor party. When they returned to the Lakes Hotel at last, after hitting nearly every seedy joint on the Strip, Quincy had ordered a margarita, less out of a desire to fit in with the guys than to help quell a massive headache that was coming on. The headache, Quincy decided, was six feet tall and had Frank written all over it.
He never knew when to stop. Or if he did, he took that extra mile to see if anybody would stop him. Frequently, none did. Frank's whole life seemed to be a struggle to push every boundary back, to shove back decency and self-restraint and austerity, to create for himself a little world all to himself where the only thing that mattered was Frank. He wasn't consciously selfish or acquisitive, nor was he materialistic. Frank just never allowed his good judgment to get in the way of having a good time.
Somebody had to keep Frank in line, to remind him that the evening wasn't all about him. They were here for Xavier, friend to each of them since college, about to become married for the first time on Monday. True, they hadn't been good friends for the past decade or so. They had known each other, passed occasionally, and once in a great while would lament that they never got together any longer to do the same things.
But that was the trouble, wasn't it? They didn't get together to do the same things because they weren't the same people. They had all changed … all, perhaps, except Frank.
Luis was married to — Quincy allowed himself to think it, privately — to a royal bitch queen with a tendency to cry like the Colorado River and a jealous streak almost as wide. That Luis was allowed out of the house for Xavier's bachelor party at all was a marvel. His wife seemed to be personally offended by the idea that Luis should need any friends other than her.
Last night, Quincy and Luis had done their best to rein in the worst of Frank's self-indulgent impulses. Today would be a new battle. Alcohol, yes, they said; strip clubs, by permission of Xavier's fiancée Tara. No private strippers, no prostitutes, no brothels. Out of respect for Tara and for Frank's long-suffering wife Carmen, the rule was look, but don't touch.
Pleading a headache, Quincy had encouraged the others to come back to their rooms early. Frank didn't want the party to end, but it was obvious that if Xavier had one more drink they'd end up carrying him back to his room. Frank was in no condition to help, and Luis couldn't do it alone. Quincy flatly refused to wait around until Frank got Xavier into a stupor.
Naturally, Frank was the first one asleep. He was out almost from the minute his head hit the pillow, with his shoes and all his clothes still on, lying on top of the comforter. Thank Heavens he didn't snore.
Xavier and Luis took to the next room over, adjoined by a connecting door. Quincy stayed up for a few minutes longer, reading to settle his nerves. In addition to his book, a pocket-sized Henry V, there was an interesting brochure about the history of the Lakes Hotel. He was an omnivorous reader who would happily read ingredients labels and cereal boxes if there were nothing else at hand.
Now, dawn rose over Las Vegas and beamed shafts of sunlight straight into his room. Quincy didn't particularly want to wake up. This was the quietest Frank would ever be all weekend and he wanted to enjoy it.
Something nagged at his sluggish brain. He struggled to realize what it was, torn between curiosity and weariness. Quincy was on his side, face turned away from the brightness of the window, bundled in hotel blankets. One of his hands cupped a nice silky expanse of flesh. And his fingernails of his other hand were jabbing into his own neck.
Quincy moved the hand that was doing the jabbing, and pushed the blankets aside with a grunt. What had he got hold of?
Ah, that's what it is, he thought sleepily. It's just my breast.
A few stunned seconds later and he rolled off the bed in complete surprise, landing with a thump in a tangle of sheets, rattling his skull against the nightstand, making the brass lamp jump. Oblivious in the bed next to him, Frank slept on.
Suddenly Quincy was wide awake and staring. His blood hummed with adrenaline, flooding him with chemical urgency with every heartbeat. His entire body — everything that he could see — female.
“What the fuck—?” he said, out loud, and stopped short. Even his voice was different.
He couldn't sit still any longer, couldn't lie there on the floor in a mountain of sheets, and so he scrambled to his feet. The view was no different. Female flesh, now his own.
“Some hangover,” he said in a female voice, but the quip he hoped would sound dry and witty came out in a nervous quaver instead.
The bathroom. He rushed into the tiny hotel bathroom, searching for the switch. The light and fan came on together, throwing a dull yellow light across the mirror. Quincy's inexplicably female reflection stared wildly back at him: young face, bobbed haircut ruffled with sleep, elfin features, green eyes. His body was young, too, ripe and perky. A butterfly was tattooed over his right breast. His nipples were pierced with silver studs. He was wearing pink, silky underwear. With frills.
Quincy was smaller, lighter. The entire room seemed larger and somehow more ominous, more dangerous to be in. His arms were tiny now, slender and stick-like. He had dainty little hands, with well-manicured nails: short, nail polish, lacquer only. One of them was chipped.
He stared at the chip. It must be a dream. It must be. But the details were so real … he could see every swoop of his butterfly tattoo, every one of the myriad colors. His long bangs were hanging in his face. Quincy didn't usually have dreams this vivid.
“The pamphlet,” he said to himself in realization. It had said something about—
He padded into the other room, feeling the way his breasts jiggled with each step, praying Frank would remain asleep. It all seemed so crazy, it couldn't possibly be real.
Quincy grabbed up the brochure and sat on the edge of his bed, making the springs squeak. Built in the 1950s, yes. Atomic Age. Early years of Las Vegas. Where was that passage? He found it, and read it aloud in his new voice: “Our guests may rest assured that the Hotel wants nothing more—”
There was a soft tap on the connecting door. In a panic, Quincy looked to the door, then to Frank, who was still blissfully asleep. For a long, crazy moment he couldn't decide whether to hide under the blankets, tell the knocker to go away — surely it must be Luis, there's no way Xavier would be up already, as much as he drank last night — or to run from the room.
The door opened slowly. The moment of paralyzed indecision passed. Luis poked his head through, looking around carefully, saying in a low voice, “Are you awake? I thought I heard — oh.”
Luis took in the scene: Frank asleep, clothed, face down on his bed. The other bed stripped of sheets and blankets, which were piled in a mess in the aisle between. A naked girl. He gave Quincy a long, disapproving look, which only heightened Quincy's sense of panic and insecurity. I never realized how tall he was, Quincy thought. And how strong. Luis could pick me up and throw me out of this room. And with these tiny arms, I couldn't stop him.
“Hey,” Luis said, nodding curtly. “Was that you I heard moving around in here? You're going to have to go. We told Frank's wife—” he emphasized the word and jerked his head in the direction of Frank's bed— “we weren't going to have any girls.”
Quincy fought an instinctive urge to cover his breasts with his forearm, and stood up. “Luis, don't you recognize me?”
“No,” he said, sounding singularly uninterested. To his credit, he didn't give Quincy's naked female body any glances, however slight. His eyes were riveted on Quincy's face. “Why, did we meet last night?”
“It's me, Luis,” Quincy pleaded. “It's me, Quincy. Don't you recognize me?”
Luis glanced to the empty bed by the window, and Quincy could see his mind working. He stepped all the way into the room and closed the connecting door quietly behind him. “Whose suitcase is that? Yours?”
“I don't know,” Quincy said. It was a tasteful piece of maroon canvas luggage, unzipped and with the lid open on a hotel chair. Blouses, bikini tops, and bras were tucked neatly inside, along with hairspray and a makeup case. “Maybe. That's where I left my suitcase last night. But I didn't have girls' things in it.”
“But that is your bag?”
Quincy shook his head, feeling his hair rustle around his slender neck. “No. Mine was big and heavy, a big brown son of a bitch. Plastic. You complained about how heavy it was.”
There was doubt in Luis's eyes. In a distant sort of way, he asked, “What was in it?”
Now Luis looked him over, as Quincy stood shivering with post-adrenaline reaction. There was no lasciviousness in Luis's gaze, just astonishment. It was if he were trying to see through the trappings of flesh into the person inside. After a moment, Luis said hopelessly, “That can't really be you.”
Quincy felt his lower lip quiver. He wanted to cry. For some odd reason, what he really wanted was someone to hug him and tell him everything would be okay. Quincy spread his tiny hands, one of which still had the Hotel brochure clenched in it. “Who else can I be?”
“I don't believe it,” Luis murmured, unconvincingly. “How?”
“I think I know how,” Quincy said, brandishing the brochure. “I'll tell you what I think. But please can I get some clothes on first?”
Kendrick woke up with a woman in his arms.
At first it was so nice, so comfortable and warm, to have her soft body pressed against his, he didn't want to disturb the moment by waking her to ask who she was. She was a gorgeous black girl, with immaculately straightened, coffee-blond hair, and her scent was heavenly. Her head was nestled into Kendrick's neck and her breathing was regular and contented.
The traveling alarm clock at his bedside read seven thirty. Before long, Pop would be coming along to knock on the door, reminding him to wake up for breakfast. Pop was reliable that way, always keeping his children, even though they were now grown, on task and on schedule. Perhaps, Kendrick told himself, he should figure out who she was, before Pop's brisk morning wake-up call. It would be embarrassing to be caught in bed with this woman without being able to explain who she was.
Who was she? Kendrick hadn't been drinking much the night before, but he didn't recall anything about a girl, especially not one this beautiful. He had had his share of beautiful women, but he was sure he would have recalled this one.
Kendrick stroked her smooth back with his left hand, listening to her breathe. Who was she?
“Mmmmm,” she said, reacting to his strokes by arching her back. She planted a warm, lingering kiss on his throat. “You're awake.”
“Of course,” Kendrick said calmly. Kendrick did almost everything calmly, always master of his face and his voice and his body. It was a supreme, balanced self-confidence that never failed to attract the female eye. Doubt was not part of his makeup.
“You're probably wondering what I'm doing here,” the young black woman said, tracing her fingers over Kendrick's bare chest. “I was wondering the same thing myself when I woke up.”
“I thought you were asleep.”
“I woke up hours ago,” she said, lightly tracing her fingernails on his skin. “I was a little freaked out. But I think I figured it out, so I decided to crawl back in bed with you.” She sighed. “For a little while longer, at least.”
“What did you figure out?” Kendrick asked.
She angled her head to look up into Kendrick's eyes. Her face was beautiful, but strangely familiar. “It's the Hotel,” she said seriously. “It's trying to make a match out of us.”
“Mmmm. And I don't think I mind all that much,” she said, and added warily, “I hope you don't mind either.”
“I don't mind at all,” Kendrick assured her. “I'm not sure who you are yet, but I like what I see.”
“Well,” she said, embarrassed, and dropped her eyes. “That's the confusing part.”
Kendrick stroked her back with his left hand, tousled her hair with his right. He brushed her cheek with his fingers, lifted her chin so she would face him. She didn't resist him until Kendrick decided he wanted to kiss those lovely, full lips of hers.
“Do you know who I am?” the young woman said quietly, putting her fingertips gently over his lips.
Kendrick kissed her fingers instead, nibbling them gently, licking them. She closed her eyes and shivered.
“Stop that,” she said, not really displeased. “It's hard to concentrate when you do that.”
He didn't apologize, but he ceased nibbling. “You look very familiar,” Kendrick admitted. “I can't figure out from where, though.”
“You know who I am,” she insisted. She searched his eyes with her own, willing him to recognize her.
Kendrick shook his head. “It's on the tip of my tongue.”
“It's on the tip of your tongue,” she smiled faintly, adding, “on my ass.”
“Vance?” Kendrick asked, stunned. “If that's you, you're—”
“A woman?” she asked. Her expression was cautious, wary, as if she were afraid what Kendrick's reaction might be.
Kendrick stared at the feminine features of his best friend while the long moment of realization stretched out, spinning in the air. How long had she been lying here in his arms, enjoying their warmth together, without admitting who she was? She had said she came back to bed “for a little while, at least.” Of course, Kendrick felt that he had always known that Vance was gay, but he had never asked — it had never been necessary to ask — if Vance had wanted him in that way. Vance must have known, just as strongly, that Kendrick was straight. It would never have worked between them, it could not have worked, and so the question had never arisen.
“You're gorgeous,” Kendrick murmured. “I can't believe it. It's just … incomprehensible.”
“That's a nice two-dollar word,” she said, giving him a smile.
It was another of their common ripostes, and Kendrick found himself gazing in wonder into her eyes, as if he had just met her all over again. “Vance, it really is you.”
“Not Vance,” she said, almost sadly. “I checked my wallet — I mean, my purse. Everything's changed, not just my body. My clothes are all different. My suitcase. Our suitcases, I should say.”
“Our suitcases?” Kendrick asked, bemused.
“Our things are packed together,” she said, and again she idly ran her hand over his bare chest. “I recognize your clothes in there with — I guess they're mine. Dresses. Bras. Bikinis. Girl stuff.”
“You said you're not Vance?”
“Not any more,” she said, and kissed his chest. “I checked. I've got ID in my purse that says my name is Vanessa.”
“I'll just call you Vanna for short,” Kendrick grinned. “Vanna White.”
“Vanna is not white,” she retorted. “Vanna's a black girl now.”
“A black girl now on your ass.”
“And on every where else!” Vanessa said, making a tiny fist with her hand. “And don't you forget it.”
Kendrick took her tiny fist in his large hand, swallowing it up completely, and Vanessa shuddered. “You're so much bigger than me, now.”
“Does that bother you?”
“No,” Vanessa admitted with difficulty. “I was afraid at first. But you make me feel really … safe. It's hard to explain.”
They lay in bed together for a time, wordlessly. Kendrick continued to stroke her back, her hair, her upper arms. Occasionally she'd kiss him.
“So what now?” Vanessa asked, in a soft voice. “Your best friend has been turned into a chick. Where do we go from here? Are you going to kick me out of bed?”
“On your ass?” Kendrick smiled and kissed her forehead. “No.”
In his arms, Vanessa shuddered. “You have no idea how relieved I am to hear you say that.”
“I don't know why,” Kendrick said, “but it feels like I've been waiting for this to happen. If you asked me yesterday if we'd be in bed together today, and you'd be transmogrified—”
“Two-dollar word,” she murmured.
“—into being female, I'd have said you're crazy. Crazy on your ass. But now it feels...”
“It feels right,” Vanessa said.
Another quiet moment passed.
“We're going to have to tell your sister,” Vanessa said. “And your Pop.”
“We will. He should be here soon. I think he said he was going to wake us up by eight.”
“Do you think he'll notice? Everything has been changed. My name — clothes — my ID —”
“We'll find out,” Kendrick said confidently. “It'll be okay. Meanwhile...”
Kendrick wrapped his arms around Vanessa, enfolding her in his warm, comforting strength. “Meanwhile, what do you want to do until eight?”
“Oh, you bad boy,” she said, with a Cheshire Cat grin. “I can think of a few things.”
“Think fast,” he said, coming down for a kiss on her lips. “We're only going to have time for one.”
Maris made his way around the ornamental lake, deep in thought. Literally overnight, everything had changed. Things had moved so swiftly, so inexplicably, and there was no time to plan for the future. He had just enough presence of mind, enough stability of thought, to envision the present: he was no longer a woman. According to his business cards, he was no longer even an executive assistant. He was thoroughly, solidly male, despite how assiduously he had tried to avoid confronting that fact in the shower.
He had always been tall, of course. Maris had always been self-confident, self-assured, had always comported himself with a cool stability, a presence that had served him well during the trials he had faced growing up female, black, and lesbian. Now, that cool detachment seemed somehow more right. He couldn't explain it.
Honor had been changed, as well, and Maris had to admit, somewhat ruefully, that it was a change for the better. Honor had seemed to prefer being overweight, unattractive, as if to defy conventions and expectations, as if to conceal herself against the eyes of men. This morning, however, she was slender and — Maris remembered the way she looked, standing at the side of the bed, nude and trembling. Her body was now very fine indeed, but the look of disgust on Honor's face would haunt him.
Somehow the Hotel had altered them both. How? How had it done so? Maris pushed the thought aside as unproductive. He may never know the answer. Perhaps, he hoped, this was all just a very bad dream.
There was a splashing from the ornamental lake which caught his ear, and he gazed out across its dawn-lit surface to see a woman swimming, sluicing through the water effortlessly. It was the Japanese girl at the reception desk. She must live here at the hotel, Maris thought absently. She seems right at home.
The slender woman knifed through the water, her long black hair streaming behind her. Maris found himself focused on the way her clean, slender limbs shed water as they arced toward the next stroke. She was very beautiful. Somehow he had never quite appreciated the shape of women before, all three dimensions of roundness and curve. In his mind, the woman seemed to take up a larger space, a greater portion of his attention.
I have to tell Schuyler what's happened, Maris reminded himself. Lord knows how I'm going to explain it.
Wild stories ran through his mind, crazy implausible excuses he could use to explain away his unexplained transformation. Maris could claim to be his own brother, perhaps. Or some kind of official. Maybe a cop. Or a doctor. Or someone from the Hotel staff. I'm sorry, but Ms. Barnhardt asked me to inform you she wouldn't be attending today. She isn't feeling well.
And then what? Complain to the Hotel management? Go back to the bungalow and face Honor's expression of horror and distaste? Contemplate the insanity that his life had become?
There had to be an explanation. But first, there was responsibility. Maris needed a reasonable explanation for his own absence. He wracked his racing brain all the way up to the sixth floor, where Schuyler Byerly's room was. When Schuyler opened the door, Maris would say — would say —
He never got a chance to say anything.
Schuyler's door opened, and there framed in the doorway was a gorgeous young woman of no more than twenty. Her face was exquisite, accentuated by an over-large pair of glasses that gave her blue eyes a softer, more vulnerable look. Her hair was blond and pulled back into a professional ponytail. She wore a feminine-cut gray suit jacket that came down to a overflowing red satin bodice stretched tightly to contain her ample assets, and a figure-outlining pencil skirt.
“I thought you'd be coming by, Mr. Barnhardt,” she said in a silky contralto, as she eyed him slowly. “I was rather hoping you would.”
Maris stared at her. She seemed very familiar somehow.
“Please come in,” the woman said invitingly, stepping back from the doorway. “I'm almost ready to leave.”
Completely taken aback by the presence of this woman, who was strangely reminiscent of someone he thought he ought to recognize, Maris followed her into her hotel room. “I'm — I'm here to see Schuyler Byerly,” he said. He actually stammered. It was a rare event. Maris never displayed uncertainty, not in his posture or his career, never in his diction, but this woman was simply tongue-tyingly beautiful.
She closed the door behind him.
“I'm Skyler,” she said softly, and paused for a moment. “Your secretary.”
Maris stared at her. Those eyes — that suggestion of a pout in the mouth — the way her bangs parted on the right and swept left — it was suddenly clear. “It happened to you, too?”
“This morning,” Skyler said, bending over the bed to gather files into an attaché case. Maris got an excellent look at her fine rounded ass as the skirt snugged around it. As she bent over, the hem of the skirt hiked up just a fraction, giving him a glimpse of the garter snaps for her stockings.
This was Schuyler?
“I discovered it as soon as I woke up, of course,” she said briskly, snapping the case closed. “I didn't know what to do.”
“Neither did we,” Maris said ruefully, and snatched his gaze away from her body guiltily as she turned to face him.
“Your partner changed too?” Skyler asked, pursing her lips with concern.
“Yes. I mean no,” Maris said, shaking his bald head. “She changed, but she didn't change sex, like we did.”
“I knew you had,” the woman went on, nodding, “when I saw my business cards.”
She unbuttoned her jacket — Jesus, she doesn't have on a bra, Maris thought, seeing how the red satin caressed her left breast — and produced a card from the inside pocket.
“Skyler Byerly,” Maris read. “Secretary to Marcus Barnhardt. It really should read Executive Assistant.”
“I'm old-fashioned. I like secretary better.” Skyler fixed him with a very direct look. “Executive assistant is too stuffy. It doesn't sound like someone you can chase around a desk.”
Maris smiled faintly. “Don't tempt me. Honor and I are still a couple, as far as I'm concerned.”
“But you're not married,” Skyler observed, glancing down at his left hand, bare of rings. Maris looked at his hand, puzzled, as if he half-expected to find a ring there — something — to remind him of the years he had spent with Honor.
Skyler's voice dropped to a worried murmur. “How'd she take it?”
He was too tired and confused to lie. “Not very well.”
“Maybe the Hotel will fix things up between you,” Skyler suggested.
“The Hotel?” Maris asked darkly. “I didn't believe it when Honor read that pamphlet to me. I thought it was just nonsense. I still can't believe we're talking about a — a building trying to interfere in everyone's lives. It changed ...” He didn't know where to take the sentence from there, and simply fell silent.
“I don't think,” he said, starting again slowly, “that it changes anyone's minds. I know I don't feel as if I'm thinking any differently. If it could, if it could make someone into a different person, it wouldn't have to do this.” He emphasized the word by gesturing at the two of them. “It would just make them better for each other.”
Skyler nodded mutely, her eyes large and sad. “I'm sorry.”
“Thank you. I am too. It was bound to happen, maybe. She and I always had our problems. I just thought we'd get more time to work them out.” Maris looked at his big hands. “What the hell are we going to do?”
She took his hands in hers. Her fingers were warm and comforting, but Maris couldn't help but notice how tiny they were now compared to his. Skyler was positively petite, except in certain conspicuously protruding places. “First,” Skyler suggested delicately, “I think we should go to the seminar today.”
“Like this. I've checked our paperwork. We seem to be registered in our new names.”
“They're going to notice something's wrong,” Maris declared with certainty. “They have to notice we've changed.”
“Then we have to tell them what's happened,” Skyler said in a quiet voice.
“And if they don't notice?”
“Then it's up to you.”
“Me?” Maris asked.
“You,” Skyler replied. “You're the boss now, Mr. Barnhardt.”
“I am,” he said, not really comprehending. Then it began to dawn on him, and he said again: “I am.”
“That's right,” Skyler said with a delighted shiver. “You're the one in charge, now. I just get to do what you say.”
Maris felt his masculine face crack into a wide smile as he looked down at his former boss. “And I get to chase you around the desk?”
“If you say so,” Skyler said meekly. “I'm just the secretary.”
His grin faltered. “I don't know if I should leave Honor her today. We should talk about what we're going to do … how we're going to ...”
“Let the Hotel sort it out, Mr. Barnhardt,” Skyler suggested. “It changed Honor, you said. Maybe it has plans for her too.”
“Perhaps,” Maris said, turning the idea over. He didn't want to give Honor up, but he knew she would be miserable the way things were now. Surely Honor would be in good hands here—
“And,” Skyler said innocently, “if you go to the seminar with me, you get to try to guess what I'm wearing under this.”
That convinced him.
9♣ 10♣ Q♥ 2♠
Xavier sat on the edge of his hastily made hotel bed, gingerly holding his head. Even with the curtains fully closed, it was far too bright in the room. He was dehydrated and ill from the previous night of drinking, and had a vague sense of unease at the presence of an attractive young woman in the room, even though Luis assured him that the girl was Quincy. Frank, the bastard, seemed none the worse for wear after having spent last evening dragging them all through every bar on the Strip. In fact, if anything, he still seemed a little drunk.
The girl — Quincy, possibly — sat on the other bed in helpless frustration, sitting with her hands tightly clasped in her lap and her eyes fixed on a blank section of wall. She wouldn't meet eye contact with any of them, nor even seem to look at herself. This girl didn't do any of the things Xavier expected a girl might do in the company of three strange men: play with her blond bob hairdo, caress her thigh, smile bashfully, look at her hands. Instead she sat erect on the bed, knees together, doing her best to give nothing away.
“You've got to be a stripper,” Frank was saying, as reasonably as he could. He had tried several times to sit next to the girl, but she had continued to move away from him. Now Frank was on the edge of his hair, elbows on knees, leaned forward like a predator. His eyes were crawling all over her body, Xavier noted, and he reminded himself not to do the same. Frank might be married, at least in name, but Xavier hoped to take it more seriously. Whoever this woman was, and however she had gotten here, it was not a license to stare.
“I mean, face it,” Frank went on. As he leered at her, she put her hands on her golden thighs self-consciously, as if to hide them. “Those guys kept telling me over and over. No strippers, no strippers. I mean, yeah, I got it. They were saying that because they'd already got one.”
“Don't be an asshole, Frank,” the girl said flatly. “I'm not stripping for you, or for anybody else in here.”
“Then how come you didn't put more on?” he asked, looking her over again. Frank seldom missed the opportunity to look a girl over. Xavier could understand the impulse, especially how this girl was dressed in a too-tight belly-baring teal tank, low at the collar, and pert pink satin shorts. “I mean, look at you,” Frank went on. “You turn up in my room, looking like that, and you say you're not here for the party?”
“It's not your room, Frank,” the girl said in a dangerous voice. “It was my room, too. Except when I woke up, I was a girl, and all my clothes and my suitcase had been switched around.”
“You still say you're Quincy?” Frank said, amused. “And you're wearing that?”
“Everything else in my suitcase,” the girl declared defiantly, “was worse.”
“She is Quincy, Frank,” Luis said wearily. “We've been over this a thousand times. She knows what Quincy knows. She knows all about all of us. Everything we did last night.”
Frank looked at Luis, a shrewd expression momentarily taking over his usually demeanor of predatory lust. “That doesn't prove anything. Maybe she was hanging around last night, listening. Maybe it proves you're in on it. You're the one who's always backing her up. Maybe you're the one who invited her.”
Xavier cleared his throat, and the others turned their heads his way. Xavier was neither the boldest nor the most charismatic, but in a strange way, he was the unspoken leader among them. He had an ability to see the big picture, to focus on the broad strokes, and to judge the abilities and character of others. Among them all, Xavier was the one who spoke the least, but when he did speak, it was always worth listening to. He was not a man to waste words.
“I'm prepared to believe it's Quincy, Frank,” Xavier announced quietly. “At least for the time being. And I'd appreciate it if you shut up about it.”
Frank opened his mouth to speak, and snapped it shut again.
The groom-to-be rubbed his aching head, and closed his eyes. “Who was it that decided there wouldn't be strippers? I did. I'm getting married to Tara. I decided it, and I have no reason to go back on that, do I?”
Frank spread out his hands doubtfully. “If you say so, man.”
“Luis is married,” Xavier went on, pointing at him. Luis was standing protectively by the bed, between Frank and the girl. “Things aren't so good between them, but Luis doesn't cheat at anything, isn't that right?”
Luis nodded. “I was dumb to marry her. But I did.”
“For better or for worse,” the girl said sarcastically.
“So he wouldn't have invited a girl along, either. It's not his style.”
Frank's eyes shifted between the two other men. “All right.”
“Then there's you, amigo,” Xavier said. “She was in your room. So if there was some secret plan to sneak Quincy out of the room, sneak out all his luggage, and put a girl in there, it would've been all you. You had to have known. You'd have to be in on it.”
“Dude, I was wasted last night,” Frank protested. “There's no way I would've woken up. I was out.”
“Maybe. But you're not hung over now, are you?” Luis observed.
“I don't get hung over. I think I'm even still a little drunk. Those Jell-O shots—”
“Maybe you weren't all that drunk last night.”
“If I wasn't,” Frank said with a grin, “then I paid a bunch of awful big bar tabs for nothing.”
“And if it wasn't Frank,” Xavier said, “that just leaves Quincy. Can you imagine Quincy pulling something like this on purpose?”
“Shit, no,” Frank said immediately. “He was the designated driver, dude. He was reminding me all night long, 'remember, no girls.' I don't know anybody who would go along on a bachelor party bar crawl and not get a lap dance. Why the fuck?”
“It's demeaning for the girls,” the young woman said acidly, fixing Frank with a deadly stare, “as I said last night. And you're married. What would Carmen say?”
Frank rolled his eyes. “Sounds like Quincy.”
“I am Quincy,” she said, and she clenched her small hands into fists until the knuckles turned white. “I swear, Frank, you've gotten a lot stupider in the last ten years.”
“Lay off, girl,” Frank said mildly, soothingly. “You wanna tussle with me, I'll be happy to give it a go, but you might want to take those shoes off first.”
“Don't patronize me,” she shot back. “The Hotel has done something, I don't know how—”
“Oh, the Hotel did it,” Frank said in mock surprise. “Let's just move the fuck back out of here, shall we?”
“Guys!” Xavier said sternly, without raising his voice, and both fell silent.
“Look,” he said, after a quiet moment where pugnacious glances were being exchanged. “Quincy would not have done something like this, would she? I mean, would he? Slip out in the middle of the night and put a girl into Frank's room? Into Frank's room? My room, maybe. Ha ha, what a good prank. The groom is caught with a girl in his room. Take some incriminating pictures. Get some lipstick smears on my shirt. A good time was had by all. But into Frank's room?”
The men considered the mental image of Quincy, unassuming and sensitive, shy and politically correct, pulling such a surprise on Frank.
“So the only thing that's left,” Xavier said in a tired voice, rubbing his temples again, “is either that somebody sneaked in while Frank was passed out, kidnapped Quincy very quietly, took his stuff, put a girl into his room who just happens to know all about us, but we don't recognize her. And after they did that, they took Frank's keys out of Quincy's pocket and brought them into our room and stuck them in Luis's pocket. Or … this really is him.”
“Once you have eliminated the impossible,” the girl began in an ironic voice, “whatever remains—”
“—is seriously fucked up,” Luis said.
“But what else is there?” Xavier asked.
“Okay, okay,” Frank said, in the tone of one agreeing politely to that which he does not believe. “Suppose it's true. Suppose this is Quincy. The question is, what now?”
“For a start,” the girl declared, “I'm not going drinking with you guys today until I find out what the hell happened.”
“Where will you start?” Luis asked alertly. “Front desk?”
“Yeah. Something like that. They're the ones who handed out the brochure. Might as well start by doing down to the front desk to complain.”
“I'll go with you,” Luis offered.
“For another thing,” Xavier said warily, “and bear in mind, I'm not trying to make this all about me, but if we don't get this figured out, we're going to be short one groomsman.”
“Oh, shit,” the girl breathed, rubbing her face. “I hope my tuxedo is still in the car.”
“Not that it would fit,” Luis said.
“Safety pins. Or something. Maybe I could rent another one in a hurry—”
“Drive all the way back to Oceanside and back?” Luis said doubtfully. “By Monday?”
“And meanwhile, while you drove back, we wouldn't have a car here,” Xavier noted.
“I could call Carmen and have her pick one up and bring it to us,” Frank said, bemused. He was still staring at the girl, but not lasciviously. There was simply nothing better in the room, in Frank's opinion, to look at.
“Frank,” Luis said, pointing to the window, “Carmen's car is here. We drove it here, remember?”
“You could call Tessa,” Xavier suggested.
Luis made a face. “She hates the fact that I'm even here. I don't think she'll be happy about driving five hours here and five hours back to drop off a tux.”
“Call Tara, then,” Frank said, sitting back in his chair and looking at the ceiling.
Xavier hesitated. “She's got a lot on her mind, with the wedding coming up. I don't want to put any stress on her. Maybe we could rent a tux here.”
“I'd need a driver's license,” the girl said, an edge of frustration creeping into her voice. “A credit card, something. Look at me, do you think I'd match the photo on my license now?”
“Then I guess I'll have to call Tara,” Xavier concluded reluctantly.
“You're going to have to tell her anyway,” the girl said. She sounded quiet, resigned. “If I show up to the wedding at the last minute, looking like this, in a tuxedo—”
“A tuxedo?” Frank sat forward again, casting his eyes over her. “Quincy, if that is you, then let me tell you a little secret. You have tits now, dude. You don't show up in a tuxedo. Get a black dress or something.”
“A dress?” the girl asked, horrified. “I'm — no.”
“Maybe he's right,” Luis said quietly. “You could buy something like that, easy. Maybe borrow something from Tara or Carmen.”
“I'm going to have to call Tara anyway,” Xavier nodded.
“No no no no, no!” Frank said, an impish smile on his face. “Come on, man. We have a girl with us. Think of the possibilities. You're seriously going to go calling your fiancée and spill the beans? Hey, Tara, how's it going, we accidentally ended up with a girl in our rooms and we don't know how she got here. She's never gonna trust you again.”
The girl was looking at Frank with a mixture of shock, disgust, and deepening suspicion. Catching sight of her expression, Luis said defensively, “What, you got a better plan?”
“Oh, hell yeah,” Frank said. “Look, if Quincy's been turned into a chick — stupidest thing I think I've ever said — but you don't wanna play with it? You just wanna fix it, turn everything back to normal? Come on! Think of all the things we could do.”
“There's only one thing that I can think of,” the girl said, repulsed, “and if it's the same thing you're thinking of, no way. No fucking way.”
“What's wrong with the idea?” Frank asked persuasively. “Don't you think it's worth exploring? This shit doesn't happen every day. Think of all we could learn! But no, you're going to go complain.”
“There's nothing I want to learn about—” she started to say.
Ignoring her, Frank turned to the two men. “Haven't you guys ever wondered if you're a good lover? Girls always fake it. They always give you some bullshit line, right? Look, Quincy here can give us an honest evaluation of our techniques, right? She can—”
“Fuck that!” Quincy cried. “I am not going to be one of your girls, Frank.”
“You can always go complain after we've tried it out,” Frank said. His voice was reasonable, seductive, but his eyes were bright and wolfish.
“Stop it,” Quincy said, covering her ears. “This is not funny!”
“Dude, you don't know from funny,” Frank said, still smiling like a crouching tiger. “You have tits. You have a pussy. I could fuck you fight now. I could get you pregnant. You don't think that's funny, dude?” He laughed at his own use of the word. “Right — dude. You are definitely not a dude of the guy persuasion right now. Not at all. And all you wanna do is go run away and complain.”
“Frank,” Luis said sternly, “we decided no girls.”
“Not for him,” he said, tossing a thumb in Xavier's direction. “He's the one getting married. Nothing wrong with me getting a little action on the side — nobody said nothing about that —”
“News flash, dickhead! You're married too,” Luis nearly shouted. “Carmen—”
“What do you give a shit about Carmen for, huh?” Frank said, standing up. His face was beginning to turn red. “Anybody would think you were the one married to her.”
“I should have been, fucko,” Luis growled.
“But you're not. You went and married Bitch Ten From Outer Space instead.”
“If I had known she had any interest in me—”
“Oh, she likes you, does she?” Frank said in a mocking sing-song. “Too bad you're not the cheating type, or you might get a piece of what I got waiting for me at home.”
“Guys, please!” Xavier said, standing up and shouting for calm, but Quincy moved fastest.
She rose from the bed unseen, while the men were yelling over her head around her, and took one step toward Frank. Her eyes were burning with fury and disgust. At the last moment, Frank tried to back against the chair, his knees coming together protectively. Quincy didn't seem to have any interest in the classic knee-to-the-groin move, and instead aimed her little fist at Frank's windpipe.
Her arms weren't strong. In a way, that was fortunate for Frank. A full-strength punch to the throat by a man might easily have killed him. Instead, Frank dropped to the hotel carpet with a sickly choking sound, clutching at his neck and wheezing in agony.
The other two men were shocked into silence.
Quincy stood over Frank with a disgusted sneer to her lip, her voice dripping with derision. “Best man, huh?”
“Quincy,” Luis said warily, as Frank continued to wheeze on the carpet between them.
“I'm leaving,” she said flatly. “I don't know what's happened to me, but I sure don't need his help—” she stamped the heel of her delicate shoe into Frank's hand, and he groaned helplessly— “deciding what to do about it.”
Xavier nodded, understanding. “Let us know what you find out.”
“I know what room you're in,” Quincy said. “I'll call up first and make sure he's muzzled.” Frank began to slowly crawl away from her, out of range of her heels. “You'd better tell Tara what's happened.”
“I will,” Xavier promised her.
With that, Quincy flung open the conjoining door, which struck Frank's calf hard. She stalked into the adjoined room, grabbed her purse, and left them.