Babylon Hotel and Casino
Las Vegas, Nevada
Sage Thornton looked across the table at his twin brother Birch. His expression clearly said “board meetings are deadly dull.” Birch rolled his eyes as if to say, “I agree, this is boring as hell.”
Fanny Thornton Reed peered at her sons over the rims of her reading glasses. “I wonder, Sage, if you can tell me why the Emperor Room has been operating in the red for the past two months. The Emperor Room has always been the hottest ticket in town for fine dining. As far back as I can remember, we've always been backlogged for reservations. The way it stands now, you can walk in off the street and get a table without a reservation.”
Sage leaned forward, the better to see his mother. “The chef bailed out on us. She didn't give us any notice, so we shut down for ten days until we could find a replacement. One day she was here, and the next day she was gone. Obviously the new man we hired isn't doing the job he was hired to do. I've been looking for a new chef since the day she left. Five-star chefs are not that easy to come by, Mom.”
“Let's try to do better. I hate seeing all these red circles,” Fanny said. “I think we're adjourned unless any of you have some business you want to discuss.”
Sage glared at the board members sitting at the long conference table. His gaze said there had better not be any new business to discuss.
“Then we are adjourned.” Fanny shuffled her papers and booklets into an accordion-pleated envelope. The sound of the rubber band snapping into place was exceptionally loud to those in the room.
The twins waited until the room emptied before they approached their mother. They both hugged her. “Nice to see you, Mom. You should come to town more often,” Birch said.
Fanny twinkled at her sons. “What good would that do me, Birch? You're in Atlantic City all the time running Babylon II. As for you, Sage, I only live fifty miles away. You could come to visit. By the way, you are going to Kentucky for the family reunion in May, aren't you? I think it's wonderful that Nealy is willing to host a get-together. Marcus and I wouldn't miss it for the world. Your sisters Sunny and Billie will be there as well as all the Colemans. It should be quite wonderful.”
“We'll be there,” Birch and Sage said in unison. “Are you staying on, Mom,” Birch asked, “or heading back to the ranch?”
“Marcus is waiting for me. I have to get back. How's my mountain, Sage?” Her voice was so wistful, Sage felt his eyes start to burn. He stared at her for a long moment, his heart fluttering in his chest at how old and frail his mother suddenly looked. He blinked. Her hair was snow-white and the fine wrinkles were deeper. Her smile was the same gentle, warm smile of his youth. He made a mental note to go out to the ranch at least once a week, even if it was at midnight.
“It's as beautiful as ever and just as wonderful. The kids love it. I wish you and Marcus would come up and spend some time with us. Iris would love it if you'd come for an extended stay.”
“If I were to do that, I might not want to leave. We'll be there for Christmas. I'll say good-bye now.” Fanny gathered up her purse and coat.
“How about a trip to Atlantic City, Mom?” Birch asked as he hugged her good-bye.
“One of these days. I like to be close to home. You know I'm only comfortable around my own things in my own place. Marcus is having knee-replacement surgery after the first of the year. Recovery time will be at least a few months. I will think about it, though. Be sure to call me. That goes for you, too, Sage.”
“Okay, Mom. Do you want us to walk you to the car?”
Fanny laughed. “I think I can get there on my own. You can walk me to the elevator, though.”
Even there on the fourth floor of the casino, the noise from the first floor could still be heard as the slot machines whirred and clanked to the sound of silver.
“Uh-oh, here comes trouble,” Sage muttered, as soon as the elevator door closed. He made his way across the deeply carpeted hallway to greet two burly Las Vegas police detectives. “What brings you here at this hour of the morning, Joe? Noah, good to see you again,” he said, pumping the second detective's hand. “You both know Birch.”
“We're here to ask you about one of your employees. She's got at least twenty aliases that we know of. Willow, Willa, or a variation of that first name. As to her last name, here, take your pick,” the detective named Noah said, handing over a sheet of paper. “We have no clue as to what her real name is. She's a cook. We were told she worked here at Babylon.”
Sage looked at his brother, a frown building between his eyebrows. “If you're referring to Willa Lupine, yes, she worked for us in the Emperor Room. She's a five-star chef, but she quit a few months ago. She pretty much left us high and dry. Why are you looking for her?”
This time Sage's eyebrows shot up to his hairline. “Murder! Willa? Who is she supposed to have killed?”
“Her husband, Carlo Belez. Also known as Junior Belez. It was in all the papers. Didn't you see it?”
Sage threw his hands in the air. “Hell, it was on the front page of the paper every day for weeks. It didn't say anything about a wife or mention our chef by name. I would have remembered something like that. If this happened two months ago, are you telling me you just figured out Junior was married to one of our employees? I didn't even know Willa was married.”
The detective looked sheepish. “So you did know Junior.”
Sage jammed his hands into his pockets. “I never said I didn't know him. Every casino owner on the strip knows . . . knew Junior Belez. He was a high roller. Never ran a marker that I know of. He won and lost money in all the casinos. Are you implying our former chef killed Junior?”
“It looks that way. We want to question her. The only problem is we don't know where she is. We have an all-points out, but nothing has come in. We just found out about her a few days ago.”
Sage raked his hands through his hair. “Wait a minute. The guy was killed two months ago, and you're just now finding out he was married? What the hell kind of police work is that?”
The detective clenched and unclenched his teeth. “Junior lived on his ranch way out there, maybe twelve miles or so past the Chicken Ranch. He liked privacy. He didn't have a housekeeper but he did have a groundskeeper who sticks his snoot in the bottle from time to time and then has to dry out. He was drying out when this all went down. He came back expecting to pick up where he left off only his boss is dead. He's the one who told us your cook was married to Belez. If it wasn't for him, we still wouldn't know about her.”
“She wasn't a cook. Anyone can cook. Willa was a chef,” Sage said. “I don't know anything that can help you. She worked for us. She drew customers like a magnet. She was one hell of a chef. She quit and took off. That's the sum total of what I know. Feel free to go to the kitchen and talk to the people who worked with her.”
“We'll do that. If you hear anything, call us.”
“I will,” Sage muttered. He looked at his brother. “Don't look at me like that, Birch. I don't know anything about the woman. The kitchen was strictly off-limits to everyone when she worked here. She was hell on wheels about people going in and out of her kitchen.”
Birch shrugged. “You taking me to the airport or should I catch a cab?”
“Do you mind taking a cab? I want to talk to the kitchen staff myself. I have this . . . weird feeling I know something, but I don't know what it is. It's like . . . something I heard. Then again, maybe it was something I saw and didn't realize it at the time. Christ, I hate when that happens. It makes me damn near nuts trying to figure it out.”
“No problem. Let me know if I can help.”
“Hey, wait just a damn minute, Birch. You're looking kind of smug. You didn't snatch her away, did you? Damn, it would be just like you to pull a stunt like that.”
“Sorry. Never saw the lady, and I don't know anything about her. I'm just glad she wasn't my . . .
“One of our employees is wanted for murder. I can't believe it, Birch.”
Birch bent down to pick up his briefcase. “He said she was wanted for questioning. There's a difference between questioning and murder. She might be a suspect. That still doesn't prove she committed the murder. It's the elimination process to track down the killer or killers. Don't go off half-cocked here, Sage. I'll call you when I get home. We can do that word-association thing we used to do when we were kids. Maybe something will come to you. You could also call that sister of ours. Sunny is great with stuff like that.”
Sage watched the elevator door close behind his brother. He felt his stomach muscles bunch up into a knot.