Grand Facade

by Fool
 
Read the prologue by clicking here.
Chapter One


The residents say its sometimes like living in Disneyland. Itís a little unfair but demonstrably true nevertheless. Las Vegas grew from being a small oasis in the Nevada desert, a minor spot literally in the middle of nowhere, into becoming the fastest growing city in the United States. The Indians were there first, then the Mormons came, then, after a series of land auctions and development plans, the oasis became a city.

It wasnít until the 1930s, though, when gambling was legalized in Nevada, that Las Vegas really began to grow. Siegel saw the potential first, but his Flamingo Hotel was only the first of the casino resorts that eventually came to be built. They got larger and larger with each passing year, finally culminating in the mega-resorts of the 1990s.

The mob was in it for the money, same as the corporations that bought them out, but they were strictly into the gambling and the vice. Entertainment is the trend of today - family entertainment - and so most of the casinos now try to feature fun for the whole family. The Circus Circus, Treasure Island, the Luxor, and Excalibur, others, they truly are like little Disneylands. The air is homogenized, and some of the sin is taken out of Sin City.

Still, for some, the gambling and the vice remain attractive. Adult entertainment in Las Vegas is a big industry, from the strip clubs to the almost legal escort services, and while none of the big casinos can cater exclusively to that sort of crowd anymore, some admittedly are a bit more risqué than others. The Rio, for one, uses a standard cocktail waitress uniform just short of scandalous, and the Stardust still features an all nude showgirl review. The tourists flock to whichever floats their boats.

The Grand Facade sits squarely in the middle, a little precariously at times, true, but in the middle, catering to both kinds of tourist trade. The movies and cinema glamour of Old Hollywood are ideal for the family, and the showroom extravaganzas have an appeal the adults enjoy. It has a little something for everyone.

Or so the advertisements read.

 

 


 

Barbara hated Las Vegas.

Sitting there in the car, in the backseat with her sister and brother-in-law, looking out the window at the Las Vegas Strip, Barbara could find nothing even remotely likable about the city. It catered to the worst aspects of the human character, and she was already regretting the impulsive decision that had prompted her coming along on the trip.

"Thatís the volcano," Stan said, pointing out the replica as he drove. "They turn it on when it gets dark, and if I remember right it goes off about every twenty minutes or so."

Great, Barbara thought. Sounds real interesting. I wonder if they sacrifice a virgin to it every night, too.

Beside her, Sami softly gripped her hand on the seat and squeezed it gently. She leaned over and whispered in her sisterís ear, "Donít be such a prude. Remember, this is for Alicia. Try to have a little fun." She looked Barbara in the eye and didnít turn away again until she got a brief nod in reply. Satisfied then, Sami leaned forward as her husband asked Stan a question and started making more small talk. Barbara turned back toward the window.

Sami was right. It had been a long flight, and they were all feeling a bit sleep-deprived, especially Barbara. She hadnít expected on coming along.

There was no need to ruin this for Licia.

Though, to be honest, this was Stanís show all the way. He was the one who had invited Sami and Chuck, at Aliciaís insistence probably, and together they had ganged up to convince her to go along too. Call it a celebration, Licia had said. Barbaraís client had won his big court case, suddenly, in a surprise out of court settlement, and for the first time in weeks there had been nothing left to hold her in town. It was the first free weekend she had had in nearly five months, and she didnít know what to do with it, except sleep. Stanís taking us all out to Las Vegas. Come on, youíll like it. Please . . . .

Her younger sister had been about as subtle as her little French dog. Sasha yipped brightly from Aliciaís lap, and it seemed it was all she could do to keep the small black and white poodle from jumping out the window. Licia wanted to show off her new boyfriend, and Stan wanted to impress his girl. So, like the proverbial fifth wheel, there she was.

Hating it.

"The Facadeís the best place in the city," Stan was saying. "Iíve been there a lot. Thatís it coming up now." Chuck and Sami strained past Barbara for a glance, and so she was the last one to see the famed casino.

It was impressive, she had to admit grudingly.

The front of the hotel had been built to resemble a kind of artificial hillside, and right smack dab in the middle of it was the famous Hollywood sign, only slightly smaller than the original . . . only here it still read Hollywoodland in big, bright white letters. Sunset Boulevard passed right below it, leading up into the casino entrance and into the underground parking structure. Marquees stood to either side along with reproductions of old Hollywood landmarks - Mannís Chinese Theater, Graumanís Egyptian Theater, the Brown Derby, the Coconut Grove, even a miniature Hollywood Bowl. It was like someone had taken all of the real places, now either gone or languishing in the real Hollywood, and had had brought them into the desert, appropriately sized for their new venue. A huge modern hotel stood in the background, dwarfing everything underneath it.

Stan turned and started driving the rental down through the middle of Sunset. "Right on the other side of the hotel theyíve got a complex of movie theaters going on all the time, showing old black-and-white classic stuff. King Kong, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, you name it. Thereís even a drive-in theater . . . you can just see the screen. They serve the best popcorn in the world there." He was beaming, completely in his element.

Chuck nudged his wife beside him, and he pointed out a sign as they drove by. "Is that the real Hollywood Wax Museum?" he asked Stan.

He shook his head. "No, but itís just as good. Better. I think itís run by the same people. Everything you ever wanted in the real Hollywood, the Hollywood of the Forties or so anyways, is here, one way or the other. Itís better than the real thing."

So why build it in the first place? Barbara thought. Why not invent something new with all that talent instead of just rehashing an era that never really existed anyway. She remembered seeing the original Hollywood Boulevard on TV once, and this place reminded her of that. Hollywood is all glitter, and what it hides often isnít very nice. Just like William Holden floating facedown in a swimming pool. Not nice at all.

Alicia turned around in her seat. "Do you like it, Barbara? Whatído you think?"

Sami touched her hand on the seat again.

"Itís neat," Barbara said, looking out the window at a sidestreet named Wilshire. "Itís hard to believe." And she smiled.

They pulled in at the front entrance, and a valet dressed like Charlie Chaplin came up to open the doors. Even Barbara was slightly amused at the guyís costume and make-up. Bowler hat. Thin reed cane. Short mustache. They went all out here, didnít spare a dime. All the other valets were dressed up like old movie stars, too. Barbara got out of the car and went to stand by the front lobby while their luggage was removed.

The statues there were really quite amazing, each one just breathtakingly lifelike. The white marble was cool to the touch.

A man who looked like a young Marlon Brando had come up to Stan. Chuck walked over to the lobby and handed Barbara one of her bags. "Whatís up?" she asked.

"The guyís giving Licia static about Sasha. They donít let animals around in the casino. Stan said heíd take care of it." He started looking at the statues himself. Sami joined him a moment later, and they started giggling in front of the statue of Jimmy Stewart.

Sure enough, shortly after the Brando clone put in a call to the manager, the family, including a very excited toy dog, was allowed in and escorted personally up to registration. Stan hadnít just been blowing smoke, Barbara conceded going in. He really did know the people who ran the place. She wasnít sure, though, that was exactly a good thing, though, her youngest sister hanging out with a professional or semi-professional gambler. What was that they called them? A "high-roller."

Impersonators of Humphrey Bogart, Grace Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn stood just inside the door. Stan had explained that they and other performers wandered around the casino and hotel, talking with tourists the same way Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck greeted people at Anaheim. They had their parts down perfectly.

Memory makers, he called them. Just one more touch of the Grand Facadeís facade.

Stan said he was a retired businessman, but he talked about Las Vegas and Atlantic City a lot whenever they were together, and Barbara suspected he made his living in places like that. Did they still have professional gamblers, she thought to herself, or is that just a cliché of the movies?

They had to cross the casino to get to the registration desk. Inside, aside from the occasional celebrity impersonator here and there, the place looked just like every other casino Barbara had seen on TV or in the movies. Iíve got movies on the head, she thought. This place is getting to me already. The lights were dim, and the sound of jingling coins was everywhere. The slot machines seemed to stretch off into infinity. A cocktail waitress walked by dressed in a very brief bellhopís uniform, stereotypically red and black (again, straight out of a vintage movie), and complete with a squarish cap perched on top of a blonde head. The uniform flared out in a wide ruffled skirt right at thigh level, exposing the girlís fishnet-hosed legs almost all the way up to her crotch.

She stopped by Barbara. "Would you care for a drink, maíam?"

Barbara shook her head politely and kept on walking. The waitress curtsied (she actually curtsied!, she thought abstractly) and went down a row of nearby slots carrying a tray of drinks.

God, she hated Las Vegas!

The registration desk itself was fairly unimpressive compared to everything else seen so far. A woman behind the bar took Stanís information while Alicia stood behind and smiled. Sasha sat in her arms cradled like a baby, tongue lolling off to one side. Four bellhops - male this time, and without the wide skirts - soon arrived and loaded their luggage into the nearby elevators. Stan had gotten them all suites.

Before going up, Barbara closed her eyes and stood stock still for a moment, breathing in deeply. All right, stop this, she said to herself. Stop making yourself miserable. Try to have a good time, if not for your sake than for Alicia and Sami.

"Barbara?" Alicia asked. "Are you okay." Her voice had become timid. Licia had not had good luck in the past with boyfriends. She wanted her sisters to like Stan.

Barbara opened her eyes. "Iím fine. Letís go upstairs." She put a happy expression on her face, and after a second Alicia mirrored it. "Weíre gonna have such a good time," her sister said.

Barbara nodded.

Newly resolved, she joined her family in the elevator.

 


 

"Well, what do you think?"

"I think, Greg, that everything is working out very well. Itís a good deal."

"Are you sure? If we get caught . . . ."

"Donít be such a pain. We wonít get caught, darling. Weíre special."

"They might have told somebody where theyíre staying. People might look for them later."

Viola patted her husband on the shoulder. "Itís all been taken care of. Theyíre ours now, and no one will know until itís too late to do anything about it, if even then." She stood up then and beckoned to him. "Now, letís go and greet our guests formally."

 


 

The detective didnít have a lot of leads left, so he was even more methodical as usual in going through them. The first place he stopped at was an arcade.

He broke the lock open with the hammer he brought, shattering it with one sharp strike. He was actually an old-hand at lockpicking, but he was in a hurry that night, and, truth to tell, the best way past a locked gate still was a hammer. He pulled the chain off, opened the dark gate, and walked through.

It was one of the old-fashioned arcades, located on a standing amusement park near the waterfront. No video games at all. They were too . . . modern. This place, built originally when Hiram himself had been a young man, was full of pinball machines and other even older penny-operated games. There was a shooting gallery, too, with a water-filled "duck pond." Stationary and belt-operated metal targets stood inside. The walls were painted in garish and loud colors, and clowns and similar adornments dominated the scene. It reminded Hiram somewhat of Coney Island. Remembrances of a better, simpler time.

The detective walked down the arcadeís center, his flashlight shining. He didnít think he was going to find anything there, but it was still worth a try. He just had this and one other property to check out. Heíd been saving the last one because it was the manís house, and if there was anything left to find, it would most likely be there.

It never hurt to be thorough, though, and Hiram was methodical to the core.

He passed the outer ring of games and entered a museum of sorts. Coin-operated and clockwork automata sat in a row across the far wall. A clown was featured, naturally, but also a ballerina, a cowboy and an Indian, and a life-size tin soldier, among others. Their expressions were blank, though the work that had gone into them was incredible. The tiny lines and pivot points were nearly unnoticeable; they could have been living people wearing theatrical makeup, so good was the illusion.

Hiram fingered the back of his neck while standing in front of the cowboy. There but for the grace of . . . he thought, and shuddered. He shook his head, then set out to do what he had to do. Taking a screwdriver out of his coat pocket, the detective went behind the cowboy and looked for a seam or other opening. Seconds later he was prying the back of the automatonís head off.

Fifteen minutes after that, with pieces of the other clockwork figures lying on the floor around him, Hiram was satisfied. They had been real toys, not . . . not something else. He saw manufacturing logos on all of them, and he knew that the Dancers never used other peopleís manufactured parts in their creations. They had too much pride.

Hiram checked his watch. It was just part midnight.

He sighed. He didnít want to, but he had plenty of time left to check out the last place on his list. He looked around at all the machinery he had strung out on the floor. He put a hand in one of his pockets and tightly gripped the key he found there.

The detective gave one more shudder, then crossed the arcade again and left.

 


 

Cool satin sheets.

A smell of lavender in the air, soft music in the background.

Idyllic. Barbara refused for a minute to wake up. She was just so comfortable. It was so much like a dream. But the light was starting to disturb her slightly, rousing her, and eventually she had to let her eyes open. I think it was a mistake to take a nap, she thought after a few seconds. The idea of just turning over and going back to sleep was just too tempting, especially considering the alternative.

There was a brief knock at the suite door.

Ah, well, Barbara thought getting up. Serves me right. But it was the first nap she had had an opportunity to take in . . . how much time, she thought suddenly, weeks? And the plane trip had been a long one. She shook her head. She was working too hard. Maybe Sami and Licia were right. A career was one thing, but she was missing out on life.

The suiteís bedroom was opulent. It was the only adjective that came to mind when Barbara had first seen it a few hours ago. It was beautifully extravagant, and strangely not in keeping with the hotelís Classic Hollywood theme. Or maybe it is, Barbara reconsidered, and I just havenít seen that particular movie. The room was complete with a four-posted and canopied bed, ruffled, with lightly pink bedsheets. A fireplace, artificial, stood on the sidewall with a synthetic but genuinely warm blaze already going on inside. It was all like something out of a gothic novel instead of a 1930ís movie.

There was another knock. "All right, Iím coming." Barbara crawled almost drunkenly out of the bed and staggered to the mahogany bedroom door. She had on her favorite nightgown, long and silky, creamy white, and she stopped for a moment to put on a robe from the bathroom. Her long brown hair had been undone and now hung down over her shoulders, sharply contrasting with her garment.

She checked through the peephole first, then opened the front door. A woman in a maidís uniform stood outside.

"Ms. Carter? How are you feeling this evening?" She smiled. The woman was young and gorgeous, and the outfit she wore was demure while at the same time strangely fascinating. Short, but not too exposing, it made Barbara think of the fetish wear she had seen in shops back in New York. The maid also looked like she had stepped out of an old novel.

"Um, okay, I guess," Barbara replied.

The woman nodded. "Iíve been sent to remind you about dinner. Your sisters and brother-in-law are getting ready, and the manager would like to meet you all." She came into the suite and went to a nearby closet. Opening it, she revealed a large selection of womenís clothing in all colors and styles. "You probably already have something of your own, Ms. Carter, but might I suggest this?" She held out a black evening dress.

Well, thatís weird, Barbara thought. She felt like she was in a comedy scene suddenly. Nice dress, but really . . . . "No, Iím fine, thank you. Uh, when is dinner again?"

"In forty-five minutes, maíam," the maid said, carrying the dress over to Barbara as if she hadnít heard her. She hung it on the back of the front door. There was something odd about the expression on her face. It was . . . blank somehow. Smiling, pleasant even, but unconnected, like there was an empty room behind her eyes. Not stupidity, and not that stereotypical blonde look (the woman had lovely blonde hair, perfectly ringleted), but . . blankness. "Iíll leave you now if you donít need my help."

"Uh, nope, I donít need anything," Barbara said, almost getting ready to laugh. "I can manage, thank you." The maid nodded, gave a short and respectful curtsey, and walked out.

Still feeling non-plussed, Barbara began dressing for dinner.

 


 

The brownstone loomed silently in the moonlight. The buildings to either side of it were equally dark, and the streetlamps were inadequate to completely banish away the shadows. Hiram stood in one of them looking up at his target.

He was about to break-in. If his suspicions were wrong, he would be landing in a world of hurt for his troubles. He didnít think he was wrong, but he had to be sure. He had gone through every other avenue of investigation, and the only choice he had left was this one, unlikable though it was. He pulled out some wires and equipment from his duffelbag and went around back to the fire-escape he knew was there.

First, the security system. For a detective of Hiramís skill and experience, it took only two minutes to completely disable. A cut here, a connection made there, and the window he opened went up silently and without alarm. Not that I think anybodyís home to hear it, he thought, paused for a second listening, then went in.

He did not turn on the lights. His momma had not raised stupid children. He didnít even bother with the flashlight; his eyes quickly adjusted to the murk, far faster and more completely than they could have done in his first few years in the business. The arcade was one thing, but, well . . . . There had been a lot of changes since Hiram had first put out his shingle, most of them bad, but they came in handy every once and a while, too.

He stalked the halls without making a sound.

The house was thoroughly Victorian. The walls were lined with portraits and photographs without end, and the furnishings were rich and baroque. Creamy wallpaper, wood-panelings, gildwork, it was all very expensive and very in keeping with the style of its owner. Hiram found his way into the foyer and started a systematic search, floor level first, then upstairs. His plan, if he found nothing else, would be to then go downstairs to the basement. If it was empty, he would know something serious had happened.

The rooms, Hiram found as he was going through them, each tended to have a common theme. One was full of Asian art and relics: Ming vases, Japanese water scenes, and the like. Another room featured African carvings, with ornate wooden masks on each wall. Others highlighted Greek and Ancient Egyptian cultures. An ordinary burglar would be salivating heavily standing in his shoes, Hiram knew. Fortunes surrounded him. He went into the library and found nothing there save for a lot of expensive books. There was a study next to it, and then another room done in an Asian motif - Hiram checked this room especially for clues, but found nothing - and then the kitchen. The results were the same.

He started to go upstairs to check out the bedrooms, then stopped when he thought he saw someone in the hall.

The maid was just outside the library. She was leaning headfirst against the hallway wall, a featherduster dangling loosely in one hand. She had an hourglass figure, short brunette hair, and pale, pale skin, completely without pores and other skin marks. Ann, Hiram remembered. Her name was Ann. She wore a French maidís uniform, short and skimpy, cut to expose her legs beautifully. He put a finger underneath her chin and gently lifted her face up. The skin, he noticed, didnít feel like skin. It was soft, yes, but too smooth and porcelain fine.

Her eyes were staring open. They were mannequin eyes, totally without expression.

Hiram wondered if anything was still going on inside her head. He suspected not.

He carefully put her head back against the wall. She had stopped in mid-stride, like a wind-up doll whose mechanism had worn down.

He let out an involuntary laugh. Thatís a thought too close for comfort, Hiram said to himself a moment later. Besides, itís not really true anyway.

What really happened, what he suspected had happened, was worse.

He went up the stairs slowly, check for traps. It would be just like the houseís owner to leave traps behind. Finding none, however, Hiram continued again his search.

He found the second girl in the Spokesmanís bed, a huge canopied thing Hiram recognized as late 18th Century French. Hiram knew her, too. Lin Yua. She appeared the perfect Asian concubine. Nude, with small and dainty breasts, and skin the same color and consistency of a lovedoll, her eyes too were wide open and staring when he looked into them. She didnít move. Her limbs were loose. She didnít breathe.

But he knew she was alive. Kind of, anyways.

Hiram was tempted to join her in the bed, but he put off the impulse, calling to mind visions of old women dancing in short skirts.

Nothing worked better for him in curbing the libido.

He assigned no particular meaning at finding the girl in bed.

Like everything else the Spokesman owned, she was just a prop. Hell, he thought, the bed itself has probably never even been slept in, let alone . . . . He trailed off.

There was a layer of dust in each of the guest bedrooms. That was not a good sign.

He found nothing else upstairs.

The door to the basement, he determined a few minutes later, had a separate security system. Hiram snipped the wires to it too, then paused thinking. That had been way too easy. The real secrets, he knew from his last visit to the house, lay beneath him. He looked around the sides of the heavy oak door but didnít see anything unusual. He checked the doorknob again but saw nothing.

If it was a trap, it was a subtle one.

The detective stood up from where he had been sitting in front of the door and working on it and calmly folded his arms together, a speculative expression on his face. Then, casually, he took the doorknob in hand and turned it.

He felt a small prick in his palm. A needle.

A brief flash of coldness washed through Hiram, then slowly ebbed away. As he opened the door he wondered what would have happened had anybody else tried that.

He was feeling a little stiff, but otherwise he was fine.

Probably something very permanent, he conjectured finally, thinking about the automatons he had seen in the arcade, and then went down the stairs.

 


 

The family had taken three suites on the top floors, one for Barbara, one for Sami and Chuck, and one for Licia and Stan. A private dining room was on a lower level, and forty minutes after she had woken up Barbara walked into it.

She had on the black dress the maid had shown her. OK, she felt vain, she admitted to herself, but so what? Iím here to have fun, she remembered thinking. And besides, it was a beautiful dress, long and silky. Why shouldnít she chose to wear it?

It was a huge floor, more like a small mansion on top of the hotel complex than anything else. The walls were wood-paneled and decorated with portraits and black-and-white photos of old-time Hollywood celebrities. James Cagney, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper. The place, though, oddly enough, reeked of age, yet was at the same time clean and exceptionally neat looking. The staircase down to the dining room was a grand thing, straight out of Gone With The Wind. For all Barbara knew, maybe it was. I have to stop doing that, comparing everything here to books and movies. Itís all too weird as it is.

The landing was tiled marble. Another maid was waiting, a redhead this time, was waiting to escort Barbara into the dining room. She was as beautiful, and as vacant, Barbara observed, as her predecessor had been.

"Barbara."

Sami was waiting for her in the foyer. Chuck, Stan, and Alicia were talking someone Barbara didnít recognize near the end of the long and well-furnished table that dominated the room. She was a richly attired woman in her fifties, with very dark black hair and a somewhat pinched face. Her sister took a long up-and-down glance at her arriving sister.

"A gift from the hotel?" she asked. Sami herself was wearing a green evening gown Barbara had never seen before. Barbara nodded. "Stanís friends are making us welcome, Iíll say that for them."

"We try, Ms. Carter. We try."

A man approached the pair from the side. He was a large-boned man, Italian, Barbara guessed, and as well-groomed and secure in her further opinion as the way only the very wealthy can ever be. He had short, curly hair cut close to the scalp. He put out his hand to greet Barbaraís and kissed the back of her wrist in old-time European fashion.

"This is Mr. and Mrs. Andolin," Alicia said, coming over with the men and the other woman. "Mr. Andolin is the hotel manager."

"Please," the man added politely. "Call me Gregor, and this is Viola." He gestured to his wife, who very consciously did not extend her hand to Barbara in greeting. Barbara instantly disliked her. "How do you do?" she said.

Gregor still had a light hold of her palm, and with it he escorted the her and the rest of the group to the table. "We are doing very well, Ms. Carter, now that you have joined us. Youíre timing is impeccable." Liveried servants began bringing in plates and arranging the dinner.

Gregor let go of Barbaraís hand as he seated her next to him at the foot of the table. Viola Andolin sat down at the far end with Stan and Alicia nearby. Sami and Chuck took the middle. The servants, all female and dressed like the chambermaid from before, worked in silence. Barbara thought she recognized one of them.

She turned to look again at Andolin. "Iím Barbara."

He took a wine glass in hand. "Barbara." He paused for a moment. "I would like to make a toast before we start," he said, addressing everybody. The others raised their glasses.

"To new friends." Glasses clinked.

"Barbara," a voice said speculatively. Barbara turned to face Mrs. Andolin. "Stan tells us that youíre an attorney." She was smiling pleasantly, but Barbara still could feel nothing but immediate dislike for her. Her smile did not touch her eyes at all.

She nodded. "Iím in corporate law, a small legal firm. Iím sure youíve never heard of us."

"Hmm," Viola said. "The lawís a fine profession. Gregor was an attorney once himself."

"That was a long time ago," Andolin said, Barbara turning her glance back to him momentarily. "So," he went on, changing the subject abruptly, "how do you like the casino so far?"

"Itís magnificent," Sami said, joining in. Barbara was glad she had; it saved her from having to lie. Stan started talking about the business of gaming, and Chuck, who into real estate, began to ask about the property values in Las Vegas. The Andolins answered their questions and provided anecdotes. The food was superb even though the topic of conversation was lacking. After a while Barbara began to wish she had stayed in bed.

"Have you lived in Las Vegas long?" Chuck asked the Andolins.

Gregor shook his head slightly. "Not long. I came here when the casino was being built. Now Iíll never leave, though. Itís a magnificent place to live. It has everything."

"Even Hollywood now," Barbara said softly. She didnít know whether she wanted anybody to hear her comment or not.

Viola Andolin nodded. "And now even Hollywood," she agreed. "And itís the best resort in the world." She passed her plate over to one of the maids, and as she did so Barbara remembered her as the cocktail waitress who had spoken to her downstairs earlier. She had the same plastic smile as a Barbie doll, Barbara believed.

She looked back to Viola. "How come Hollywood? Or vintage Hollywood, I should say."

Gregor answered. "Nostalgia, Barbara. Pure and simple." He warmed up to the subject, and Barbara could tell it was something he liked to talk about. "Modern Hollywood is served by all those new sites, Planet Hollywood and the like, with modern stars and films which frankly fail to impress me nowadays. Classic Hollywood, though, itís . . itís . . something different." He gestured with his hands. "The Grand Facade celebrates the golden age of Hollywood, that illusion of the ideal world we all so desperately want to live in."

"Is that why itís called the Grand Facade?" Alicia asked. "Because you say itís an illusion?" Stan was beside her, and she looked very happy.

Gregor nodded. "Not just me. Hollywood is illusion, old-time or new. And, to be quite honest, the illusion is more powerful than the reality." He took another sip of wine. "Just look at how much influence that one little corner of L.A. has had on the rest of the world. Illusions are powerful, maíam." He laughed lightly.

The dinner lasted about an hour. As everyone was leaving the table Gregor invited the party on a tour of the casino. "Iíll introduce you to Jerry Bellisar. Heís bringing his show ĎThe Scepterí to the casino this summer for a four-week engagement."

Chuck looked at his wife and then at Barbara before answering for them. "Can we take a raincheck on that, sir? Itís late, and after a good meal like that one I think weíre all feeling a little sluggish." Barbara could have kissed him.

"Tomorrow morning, then," Andolin said, confirming. They walked out through the foyer and onto the marble landing again. Barbara noticed some of the chambermaids leaving through another hallway. She realized suddenly that throughout the whole meal not one of them had spoken once. Even now, climbing into what looked like a private elevator, they were all deathly quiet.

"Uh, I couldnít help but notice," Barbara began, and both Gregor and Viola looked at her. "One of the maids at dinner was one of the waitresses I saw downstairs. Isnít that unusual?" She wasnít quite sure how else to explain the weird feelings she had.

"Well, we like to think of ourselves here at the Grand Facade as being more than just your average, run-of-the-mill casino. Weíre a family here, and everyone pitches in equally." He and his wife glanced at each other, and they shared a grin, like they were holding some kind of a secret back. Barbara noticed he didnít answer her question.

The family started climbing the huge staircase, Chuck and Sami together, Stan and Alicia together, and Barbara on her own again, as usual. They said goodnight to the Andolins and returned to their suites. Barbara thought she might skip out on the tour tomorrow morning and just sleep in.

Removing the black gown she had borrowed - she didnít know if it was a real gift from the casino or not, and she had no intention of keeping it either way - Barbara decided that her antipathy for Viola Andolin also extended to her husband. They were holding something back; he had the same look about him as she did, that he was just playing a role and really didnít care about Stanís friends at all. Or Stan either, for that matter.

In many ways, the Andolins reminded Barbara of Stan. Smarmy and superficial. If this is what gambling does to people, Iíve got to have a serious talk with Licia before this thing goes too far.

It took a long time for her to get to sleep. She dreamed of B-movies.

 


 

Hiram got into his car and sat behind the wheel for a few minutes before starting it up. The basement had been cleared out. Carnelianís Gallery. His vault. Everything. All gone. It confirmed the worst of what the detective had suspected all along.

He muttered a low curse. The last time heíd been in Vegas, the place had been little more than a flyspeck on the way to Arizona. Now heíd have to go back.

The Spokesmanís missing, he thought. I knew Fip was gone and some of the others, but Carnelian . . . . Hiram didnít like to think about what it all meant.

He thought nothing could harm Carnelian. The Cirque is leaderless now. Like a chicken that got its head cut off.

He put the car in transmission, turned on the headlights, and started driving.

Dead chickens, he remembered reading, tended to flop around a little before the end.

He hoped it wasnít true.

Who knew the kind of mischief that could cause?

 

 

  Continued...


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