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Chapter 3 - Dirty Laundry

It took Raina and her grandma fifteen minutes to find the service hall. They had to pretend to be new employees looking for the general manager. The first uniformed employee they asked gave them a suspicious look and directed them to one of the casino floor supervisors. The second employee was more trusting and gestured at the rear wall next to the buffet. 

Raina and Po Po strolled through a set of unattractive double swinging doors and into the service hall with its own freight elevator. The carpeted floor became a beige tile. The wood wainscoting disappeared, and the walls were a drab off white. Even the lighting appeared dimmer as if someone in management was trying to save costs by cutting corners. 

As Raina and Po Po approached the laundry room, there wasn’t anyone in the hallway to keep out busybodies. From the doorway, Raina saw two industrial size washer and dryer sets and white laundry bags stacked in front of them. One bag was partially opened, revealing the victim’s face.  

Raina gasped. She staggered forward, grabbing onto the door frame for support. The victim was Claire Boucher. Raina’s gaze shifted down from the face to the neck. Deep bruise marks circled her neck. Someone had strangled the poor woman. 

She blinked several times, but the scene in front of her didn’t disappear. The harsh fluorescent light of the laundry room washed out all the colors in the world, except for the victim’s red hair. Stainless steel, white floors, white light, and red hair. Bile rose in her throat, and she swallowed several times but couldn’t get rid of the taste in her mouth.  

Po Po patted Raina’s back. “Maybe we should get out of here.” Her grandma’s voice was unsteady. The hand on Raina’s back shook. 

Raina dragged her gaze away from the victim to glance at Po Po. Her grandma’s ashen face snapped Raina out of her frozen position. They had to get out of here before her grandma passed out from the shock. She held onto her grandma’s arm, and they turned away from the doorway of the laundry room.  

“What are you two doing here?” someone snapped from behind them. 

Raina’s head jerked up.  

Willie scowled at them. Next to her was a man in a crisp white shirt, black tie, and black suit. Everything about the man was square—square nose, square jaw, and a square tank of a body. He towered over the tawny blonde in her three-inch heels. His hooded dark brown eyes hid his emotion and thoughts. He would have made a good bouncer. 

“We were heading out to my car.” Raina pointed a shaky finger at the side entrance of the hotel-casino.  

“Why…why is that woman in a laundry bag? Who…who was she?” Po Po asked. There was a tinge of hysteria in her grandma’s voice.  

Raina blinked at a sudden thought. Her grandma didn’t recognize Claire Boucher, but the security team would have seen Raina chasing Claire on the video surveillance before the discovery of her body. The whole thing would make Raina a suspect. In the eyes of the security team, it would look like she had returned to the scene of the crime. Yikes! Coming down here was a serious mistake.

Willie eyed them and spoke over her shoulder. “Hendricks, I thought you posted a guard.”

Hendricks pulled out his cell phone and tapped on it. “Let me find out.” His phone chirped, and he glanced at the message. “She had to go to the ladies room.”

“The pregnant one?”


Willie pressed her lips into a thin line.

Hendricks gave an apologetic shrug. “She’s the only one available.”

Willie rubbed the temple of her head. “Put Miss Sun and her grandma in the room with the maids. They can’t leave the crime scene until after the police speak with them.”  

Hendricks gestured for Raina and Po Po to follow him. His dark hooded eyes regarded them without any emotion. This was just business for the man. For a moment Raina wondered what other messes he might have cleaned up for the hotel-casino. 

Raina straightened and stood her ground. She didn’t want to be held in a cell like a criminal. After all, this was Las Vegas. How did she know this casino wasn’t run by the mob? They got rid of problems by burying them in the desert sand. No siree. She was staying out here where someone could hear her scream.

“You have no authority to detain us,” Raina said. She didn’t want to sound confrontational, but she wasn’t willing to be a chump either. “We’re more than happy to cooperate with the police, but we’ll stay right here.” 

“How do we know you’re not connected to the mob?” Po Po asked.  

Though Raina still didn’t like her grandma’s pale coloring, at least her voice sounded more like her normal self. 

“We don’t want to disappear.” Po Po made air quotes around the last word. “I’ve seen the movie Casino.” 

Raina suppressed a smile. It looked like her feisty grandma was back, and on the same wavelength with Raina.  

Willie rolled her brandy-colored eyes. “I don’t have time for this nonsense. Just stay here and don’t disturb anything.” 

Willie and Hendricks turned and went into the laundry room. They came outside almost immediately. Willie closed the laundry room door with a napkin from her pocket. Both of them were frowning with that determined look of professionals taking care of dirty business.  

“Get someone to stand guard and wait for the police, Hendricks,” Willie said. “And have someone posted outside the entrance to guide the police back here without going through the casino floors. I don’t want to alarm any of our guests. Text me when the police get here. I need to call corporate.”  

Raina never gave much thought to the business side of the hotel-casino. Was corporate a code word for the mob or did Willie mean a head office somewhere like your average Fortune 500 company? This thought made Raina feel better. A corporation surely didn’t bury bodies in the desert? So they were probably safe enough from the mob. And who put the idea of the mob in her head in the first place? 

Willie strolled away, her heels clicking on the tile floor. Hendricks stood in front of the laundry door, feet spread, hands tapping on his cell phone. Probably to carry out the instructions issued by his boss. 

Raina glanced around at the ceiling and noticed two security cameras in the middle of the service corridor, one pointing back to the main area and one pointing toward the laundry room and side entrance. Hopefully, the cameras recorded who was in the service hall with Claire at the time of her death.  

But if the killer approached this corridor with his or her head ducked down, the second camera would only capture the person’s back. If the person wore baggy clothes, security might not even be able to tell if the killer was male or female. Not much use in a murder investigation.  

Raina shivered at the thought. There was no doubt someone had strangled Claire Boucher and stuffed her in a laundry bag between 5 AM when she was last seen running out of Raina’s room and a few minutes ago. Would she have died if Raina didn’t chase her out into the open? There was no way to tell, but Raina could not help but feel guilty for her contribution to Claire’s demise.  

At this point, the only thing she could do for the poor woman was to help track down the killer. She gave Hendricks a sideways glance. She whispered to her grandma in Chinese, “Distract him for me. I want to look around outside.” 

“I’m on it, Sherlock,” her grandma mouthed.  

Po Po staggered toward Hendricks, flapping a hand on her face. “Young man,” she called out in a reedy voice.  

Hendricks glanced up from his smartphone.  

Po Po took two more steps and rolled her eyes upward. “I feel faint…” 

Hendricks reached out automatically and caught Po Po before she could collapse on the floor. Her grandma must have started acting lessons. As he turned to settle Po Po onto the ground, Raina slipped out the side entrance.  

Once outside, she sidestepped to get away from the glass cut-out on the door in case Hendricks looked around for her. To her right was the loading dock where deliveries must come in daily to keep the restaurants and shops stocked. On the left was the concrete enclosure hiding the commercial trash bins. Next to it, a small concrete footpath led around the building. To escape, the killer wouldn’t have gone toward the loading dock or the trash bins.  

Raina followed the footpath, scanning the ground. Around the corner of the building, she found a white card poking up from the hedges next to a patch of towering holly oak trees. She got down on her hands and knees to peer underneath the bushes, reaching into her purse for a tissue. She pulled out the white plastic card. It was still attached to an orange lanyard. Did someone from the convention pass through here? 

She flipped the card around. Brian Anderson. The man who confronted Claire about the missing breakfast spread. While this seemed like a weak motive for killing someone, if this animosity had gone on long enough, he could have snapped. 

Raina returned the name badge to its original location underneath the hedge. She glanced around but didn’t see any security cameras. What were the odds of Brian losing his name badge in this remote part of the hotel-casino on the same day Claire’s body was discovered?

* * *

Raina followed the footpath until she found another entrance and slipped inside. The cool blast of the air conditioning greeted Raina, and her curly black hair fanned out behind her like she was on a photo shoot. She glanced up at the ceiling to find several security cameras. There probably weren’t enough human resources to monitor every screen, but she assumed the security team was following her every move. 

She headed to the nearest restroom and did her business. If Hendricks asked, she could truthfully say she was in the ladies’ room. As she made her way across the casino floor and back to the service hall, she passed several women in tight white tops and short black skirts, holding out trays of drinks. These servers ignored Raina even though she could have used a cold drink.  

Raina licked her parched lips. What she wouldn’t give for a nice cold drink and maybe a nap back in her room. And as quickly as the thought flashed across her mind, a stab of guilt twisted her stomach.  

Claire Boucher would never feel the summer heat on her skin again or taste a refreshing drink. Whatever she did to cause the killer to snap, Claire surely didn’t deserve to die, not when hardened criminals walked among innocent people. 

As Raina stepped through the double doors and approached the laundry room, Hendricks glanced up from his cell phone. From the set of his mouth, Raina knew he was annoyed with her. “Where have you been?”  

“I had to go to the ladies room,” Raina said, which was technically true. “Hendricks, my fiancé told me your security team hired him to help with your computer system. Is he watching us now?” She waved at the cameras on the ceiling, pretending like she was a bimbolina wanting to catch her man’s attention.  

“We don’t hire contractors,” Hendricks said. 

“I thought a contractor for upgrades is cheaper than a full-time computer guy,” Raina said. She cringed inwardly. Now she was really fishing. Someone had to know about Matthew in this place. Her fiancé wouldn’t have lied to her. She just hoped he wasn’t in a hole out in the desert. 

Hendricks grunted and returned to tapping on his phone.  

Raina didn’t think he was on Facebook chatting with his friends. He was probably directing his staff to do something and used the text app for privacy.  

Po Po was perched right next to his side. She squinted at his screen, but Raina couldn’t tell if her grandma could actually read the tiny display. Since her cataract surgery a few years ago, she had better vision than Raina.

Every once in a while, Hendricks scowled in her grandma’s direction and took a step sideways as if to put some distance between the two of them. Po Po pretended to blink at the ceiling and ignored his look. The senile old lady act again. And when he wasn’t looking, she would inch closer to reduce the gap between them. 

Wait a minute, Raina thought.  

Her grandma thrust her chest at Hendricks’s phone screen. Was the locket on Po Po’s neck a tiny camera? Or maybe the sunflower pin on her designer T-shirt was the camera? Was her grandma taking pictures of Hendricks’s screen to capture the conversation? One of Po Po’s hands was tucked inside her pants pocket. She might be activating the camera’s shutter with a remote. 

There was a commotion behind Raina, and she spun around to see the police approaching—four uniformed officers and a detective in plain clothes. Raina thought they got here much too quick. Maybe the hotel-casino had some influence with the police department. After all, the city did have a history of misconduct in the police force. 

Would they cover up this murder? No, it would be hard to cover something like this. Claire Boucher had probably been organizing the Rock and Jam Convention for years, so the attendees would notice and demand answers at her sudden death. 

Or would the police do a slapdash investigation so the hotel-casino wouldn’t get any bad publicity? This seemed the more likely route. Mishandling or contaminating the evidence could shelve the investigation pretty quickly. It seemed strange the forensic team wasn’t dispatched with these officers. After all, didn’t the security team from the hotel-casino tell the dispatcher that Claire Boucher was dead? 

Hendricks glanced up from his phone and slipped it in his pocket. “Officers, I’m so glad you’re here. When the general manager and I came downstairs, we found these two”—he jerked a thumb at Raina and her grandma—“in the laundry room with the victim. I don’t know if they are witnesses or suspects.” 

Po Po glared at the security guard. “Witnesses, you big ape.” 

Hendricks ignored the comment and gestured at the laundry room. “The body’s in there.” 

“We were supposed to meet with security about a separate issue,” Raina said. “We heard he was down here, so we came down hoping to catch him. It sounds like we’re not the first one to arrive on the scene. The maids found the body first.”

Hendricks pulled out his walkie-talkie. “Let me know when you’re ready to interview me.” He stepped aside, probably to inform his boss the police had arrived. 

An officer approached Raina and Po Po, and the rest filed into the laundry room. Raina wanted to groan out loud. Why would all four police officers need to go inside? It wasn’t like the killer was still hiding inside when there was an exit a few feet away. All their shoes tracked in who knew what, and the extra skin cells would contaminate the entire crime scene.  

The officer questioned Raina first, asking her to step toward the exit so her grandma couldn’t hear Raina’s answers. 

“Tell me what happened,” the officer said.  

Raina started with the walkie talkie in Willie’s office and their discovery. She mentioned going around the building. 

“Why did you go outside?” 

“I was so cold after discovering the body.” Raina shivered at the memory. “I needed to feel the warmth of the sun.” The words rang true. She hadn’t realized she had unconsciously sought out the heat. “Then I went to the ladies room.” 

“Have you seen the victim before?” the officer asked. 

“Yes,” Raina said reluctantly. “Her name is Claire Boucher, the organizer for the Rock and Jam Convention. I spoke with her yesterday about getting my grandma a ticket.” Should she say something about chasing Claire down to the casino floor? It sounded so incriminating, though Raina had done nothing wrong. 

Sometimes Raina wondered if her ancestors had a wicked sense of humor. They were supposed to look out for her, but she seemed to always end up in situations where dead bodies turned up. 

She gave her grandma a sideways glance. Maybe Po Po had been praying for a distraction like this to get her through the week. Raina groaned at the thought. She needed to stop this circular logic. It was getting her nowhere. 

The officer moved on to another question, and the moment passed for Raina to say something about chasing Claire. She wasn’t withholding information, just organizing it in her head until she had her facts straight. Besides, the detective in charge would probably want to speak to Raina again once the investigation was in full swing.

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Chapter 2 - Time to Rock and Roll

After breakfast, Po Po took Maggie Louie back to the hotel suite they shared. Matthew’s grandma was sight impaired and preferred to spend time in front of the TV—listening to the Chinese drama shows streamed through her tablet and knitting—than to wander around in unfamiliar places.  

Raina took the service dog for several walks around the block and made sure he did his business. By the time they went upstairs, the dog was ready for his chew toys and TV. She set a bottle of water and several chewy granola bars on the side table next to her future grandma-in-law and kissed her cheek. She checked the food and water bowls in the mini kitchen area. 

Po Po was beckoning at the open door of the hotel suite. “Come along, Rainy. Adventure waits for no one.” 

The two of them took the elevator down to the casino floor and made a left toward the convention area. Outside the main hall, several Elvis Presley impersonators were playing together to a small crowd of other rock star impersonators that Raina didn’t recognize.  

Po Po made a beeline for the crowd. “Come get me when you’re done,” she called out over her shoulder. 

Raina rolled her eyes. So much for her wing woman.  

As she approached the plastic table on the side, her gaze scanned the area, looking for Claire Boucher. There was no sign of the convention organizer, but the woman who bumped into her yesterday was handling the table. She was still dressed in the Cher costume. For a moment, Raina wondered if the convention attendees wore their costume the entire week. Yuck.  

She smiled at the Cher impersonator. Now, what was her name? Anne? Gloria? Yes, that was it. “Hi, Gloria, I’m looking for Claire Boucher. Is she around?” 

Gloria straightened the stack of brochures advertising rock-and-roll collectibles. She was in her mid-thirties, and her almond-shaped brown eyes were heavily shadowed with white glitter makeup. She towered over Raina in her platform boots. 

When she spoke, she showed yellow-stained crooked teeth. “No one has seen Claire since dinner. I volunteered to fill in for a bit, but it’s almost my turn on the stage. I’m a dancer.” 

Raina blinked. How much dancing could someone do in four-inch platform boots? “Claire left a message on my phone. Two spots opened up after everyone checked in yesterday. I paid for the tickets online as soon as I heard the message. I thought she would have my welcome packet here.” 

“Like I said, no one could find her this morning.” 

“Did someone check her room? What room is she in?” 

Gloria shrugged. “No idea. I’m not part of the inner circle of the planning committee.” She dug under the table and pulled out two blank name badges. She slid them across the table with a permanent marker. “I don’t know where the welcome packets are, but at least you can get inside the convention rooms now.”  

Raina’s grin widened. This was as easy as taking candy from a baby.  

“Do you have the confirmation email?” Gloria asked. 

Raina cringed inwardly. She pulled out her cell phone and scrolled through her email until she found a PayPal receipt for a pair of shoes she had bought online. She flashed the phone display. “Here’s the PayPal receipt.” 

Gloria flicked a perfunctory glance at the screen and returned to straightening the table. “Don’t forget Talent Night is Saturday. There is a thousand-dollar cash prize for the best impersonator show.” 

Raina thanked Gloria and turned to search for her grandma. This was amazing! Now both she and her grandma could wander through the convention to search for Claire. She was probably inside one of the conference rooms, hoping to avoid Raina. After all, she had to expect Raina would come looking for her. 

As Raina and Po Po wandered the exhibit and various convention halls, they scanned the crowd, though it was hard to recognize anyone in the sea of sequins, wigs, and flashy guitars.  

Po Po grabbed Raina’s forearm. “Look!” She pointed at a dark-skinned man with a thin mustache. 

Raina squinted. Must be pretty good makeup to turn a woman into a man. “Are you sure that’s Claire?” 

“No, that’s Little Richard.” Po Po’s eye glowed. “I must get his autograph.” She made a beeline for the impersonator. 

Raina tugged at her grandma’s hand. “Whoa! This isn’t a sightseeing expedition. Besides, these are wannabes, not the real deal. We’re here to look for Claire Boucher.” 

“I don’t even know what the woman looks like. When she ran by, I only got a glimpse of her dry hair. She needs a deep conditioning.”  

Raina suppressed a sigh. Trust her grandma to notice the most irrelevant detail. “This is like looking for a bean in a rice bin. Let’s find the general manager. Maybe we can sweet talk him into giving up Claire Boucher’s room number.”  

“Or he could tell us where in the world Matthew is,” Po Po said, giving Little Richard a longing glance. “And then we’ll need disguises to blend in with this crowd.” 

* * *

Raina had expected Willie Machado to be a big beefy guy, someone that could be the bouncer at a nightclub. Yes, she was stereotyping, but this was Las Vegas. 

Instead, the general manager was a busty five-foot-six tawny blonde with eyes the color of brandy. She wore a tight black pants suit, the kind a model might wear at a photo shoot, and three-inch stiletto pumps. When she spoke, she had the gravelly voice of a senior citizen who had been chain-smoking her entire life even though she was not a day over forty. 

“What did you say his name was again?” Willie asked, her hands folded in front of her on the desk. The talon-like nails looked like a formable weapon a la Wolverine. A walkie-talkie and a closed file folder were the only two items in front of her. 

“Elliott Matthew Louie,” Raina repeated for the third time. She suppressed the urge to sigh. She didn’t believe Willie was being difficult on purpose, but the general manager might have some unacknowledged hearing loss.  

Raina reached into her purse and pulled out one of Matthew’s business cards and slid it across the desk. “He’s a homicide detective for Gold Springs, California, but sometimes he freelances. Someone contacted him a few weeks ago to hire him to check the security system for this hotel-casino. We’ve been here for three days already.” 

Willie picked up the card and studied it, flipping it over to look at the back. “Never heard of him. We don’t hire people off the street to work on our security system.” She slid the card back across the desk. 

“Matthew isn’t someone just off the street,” Po Po said. There was a hint of defensiveness in her voice. “He is an ex-Marine, worked for the FBI, and this security job came from a friend.” 

Raina patted Po Po’s knee. When did Matthew work for the FBI? She dismissed the thought for another time. There was still so much she didn’t know about her fiancé. 

As much as she loved the defensiveness in her grandma’s voice, she didn’t want to irritate Willie. The general manager didn’t believe the hotel-casino hired a consultant to check on their security system, and short of whipping out a signed contract, Raina didn’t see how she could convince Willie otherwise. Time to explore a different path. 

“One of the perks for the security job was the two suites. If the hotel-casino didn’t hire Matthew, who paid for the rooms?” Raina asked.  

Matthew had checked them in and handed Raina and the grandmas their key card, so she had no idea who booked the suites.  

Po Po gave Raina a nod of approval. 

Willie glanced at the smartwatch on her wrist. “Ladies, I have twenty pounds of fish sitting in ice chests outside the kitchen, a broken water main, and I have over eight hundred Elvis Presley impersonators walking around the hotel. I have to go.” She stood and gestured at the door. 

“Someone came into my room at five in the morning using a key card,” Raina said, staying put on the chair. She wasn’t leaving without some answers. “Does your front desk give out keys without checking identification?” 

Willie’s eyes narrowed. “Miss Sun, we always verify the identity before issuing key cards. You said five AM?” At Raina’s nod, Willie’s frown deepened. She picked up the walkie-talkie and spoke into it. When she finished her conversation, she addressed Raina. “My head of security will meet you outside my office. He can go through the video feed of the corridor outside your room.” 

Raina stood. Well, at least this was something. “Would the front desk be able to help me figure who booked our suites?” 

Willie walked around her desk and stood next to the doorway of her office. “Their computers would have the information. And once they verify your identity, they should be able to help you.” 

As Raina and her grandma stepped out into the hallway, Willie’s walkie-talkie crackled to life. Willie returned to her desk and turned up the volume knob. Raina and Po Po lingered at the doorway, waiting for security as instructed.   

“...dead body…laundry room...call the police...” 

Raina’s pulse jumped at the message. A stranger in her room, and now a dead body in the service hall. What were the odds? She hoped these events had nothing to do with Matthew, and until she had more information, it wouldn’t hurt to keep her eyes and ears open.  

Willie grabbed the walkie-talkie and pressed a button. “Willie here. Can you repeat what you said?” She glanced up to see both Raina and Po Po staring at her. As the message came through a second time, she closed the office door. 

Po Po pressed her ear to the door. “I can’t hear a thing.” She scowled at the door. “Who do you think is dead? One of the employees? Or maybe the Mafia knocked off someone for the casino.” 

Her grandma’s eyes glowed with excitement. Any minute now, her grandma would insist on checking out the laundry room. There were only so many hours a person could spend in front of the penny machine and the buffet line before the brain turned to mush.  

Raina strolled toward the elevator. She was doing this for Matthew. After all, when he surfaced again, he might like to know what was happening in the hotel-casino.  

Tell yourself what lies you need, girl, said a small voice inside her head. 

Raina ignored the comment. She knew what she was doing. She didn’t want to be the woman left behind waiting for her man. Any action was better than picking her belly button lint. And it wasn’t like she was committing to investigate the death. She was just another lookie-loo. There were plenty of those at the scene of an accident. 

“We should go check out the laundry room,” Po Po said, trotting to keep up. “If Willie gets there before we do, she’ll make us leave. We can always check in with security later. Claire Boucher isn’t going anywhere with the convention in full swing.” 

“Why do you think we're power walking to the elevator?” Raina asked. 

Po Po gave Raina a wide beaming smile. “That’s my girl.”

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Chapter 1 -Tighty Whities

“Are you sure there are no more tickets for the Rock and Jam Convention?” Raina Sun asked. “My grandma has been pacing the floor in the hotel room. She would love the chance to dress up as Elvis Presley and strut her stuff with you all.” She held her hands together as if in prayer. “Please. Pretty please.” She was more than willing to grovel for her grandma’s sanity…and her own. 

“We’re completely booked. There’s not even standing room in the main hall.” The organizer wore an orange lanyard with a name badge that indicated her name was Claire Boucher. Her clear blue eyes were apologetic, but the set of her mouth said she wasn’t bending the rules. 

Claire tucked a strand of gray-streaked red hair behind her multi-pierced ear. Half-moon reading glasses hung off the collar of her blouse, but her face was unlined and only had a hint of crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes. She moved her phone aside and riffled through the stacks of paper on the plastic table in front of her with the frantic and frazzled air of a dog rooting for a chicken bone in the trash.

With over eight hundred convention attendees in the hotel-casino along with the guests, everyone was more irritable at the longer lines at the restaurants and the increased wait time for services. And the people running the convention probably had to deal with all the complaints. No wonder Claire looked frazzled, but Raina wasn’t doing much better either. 

Raina had to sit tight with two senior citizens and a service dog. Matthew, her fiancé, had left with his Jeep to finish up his freelance security gig days ago. He had promised her a good time, and she came to Las Vegas secretly hoping they would elope at one of the wedding chapels. 

Instead, he had come and gone at all hours of the day—and night. And she had been stuck entertaining two senior citizens and walking the service dog. Matthew’s grandma was no problem, but Raina’s grandma was in a whole other league. And this Rock and Jam Convention was Raina’s last ditch effort to keep from killing her grandma.

Raina grabbed a brochure from the table and scribbled her name and cell phone number on it. “I’m in Room 218. If a spot opens, please contact me. We’re here for a few more days, so my grandma can fill in at any time.”  

Claire glanced at the brochure and blinked. “Raina Sun. What an unusual name.” Her gaze focused on Raina for the first time. “And curly black hair on a Chinese woman. Is it natural?”

Raina blushed. She was used to outspoken little old Chinese ladies, but Claire wasn’t old enough to be a senior citizen. Raina couldn’t help it if she looked like a pencil with an Afro. Her hair’s moisture balance was off from the desert heat outside and the indoor air conditioning. 

“Yes, it’s natural. Curly hair is a recessive gene, but it pops up in my family now and then,” she said, hoping she didn’t sound too testy.  

Claire flicked a glance at Raina’s hand. “As long as your fiancé is okay with it, what does it matter.”

“Matthew loves my hair.”

Claire nodded absentmindedly. “I need to check in the people behind you.” 

Raina wanted to grovel some more but backed away instead. She didn’t want to ruin any chance she might have of snagging a ticket. “Thank you for your time.” Before she could turn away, someone brushed against her arm and got in front of her.  

“Hi, Claire. It’s Gloria Tanaka…” 

Raina sidestepped out of the way and glanced over. This Gloria person was dressed as Cher and clutched her name badge like it was the last fried won ton on the plate. Whatever happened to personal space?  

Claire paled. “What are you doing here?”

“I love rock-and-roll. Now where is the data you stole from my computer?” Gloria said.

Raina lingered next to the sign-in table. Stolen information? Cool. This was much better than returning upstairs to hang out with the grandmas.

Gloria’s mouth twisted into a snarl. “You saw me log in with my password. If you don’t come clean, not only will I lose my job, I could lose my security clearance for compromising the mission. I will never work at NASA again.”

“I’m on vacation right now, so I don’t want to think about work,” Claire said. Her tone was pleasant but not friendly. She handed Gloria a welcome packet. “I have to check the rest of the people in.”

“You can’t get rid of me this easily,” Gloria said. “I’m going to the Inspector General’s office—”

The commotion at the end of the line grew louder. Raina glanced at the crowd. A man approached the folding table, winged by several people. All of them were wearing name badges from the convention. If Raina didn’t know any better, she would have thought they were a lynch mob.

When they got close enough for Raina to see their angry faces, she backed away from the folding table and flattened herself against the wall. She crabwalked along the wall and edged around the group. 

The leader of the group flattened his hands on the folding table and thrust his face forward. He looked like he was in his mid-forties with dark sideburns that might be real, unlike the thick toupee that sat at a jaunty angle on his head. He was a slight man, probably five foot seven, though his blazing pale blue eyes made him seem formidable. “Claire, where is the breakfast spread for the Sunset Room?”

Claire stiffened. “Good morning, Brian. Have you tried talking to the hotel staff before coming here with your friends to accuse me of failing to do my job?”

People in their rock band outfits drifted over and divided themselves between Claire and Brian. It looked as if even a convention had its share of politics. Gloria Tanaka grabbed her welcome packet, spun on her heels, and stomped off. She probably knew this wasn’t the time to continue their conversation. 

Raina was disappointed. Stolen data from NASA sounded more exciting than a missing breakfast spread. She edged away from the confrontation. She didn’t think the convention attendees would exchange blows, but she didn’t want to be stuck in this hallway until the crowd dispersed. She breathed a sigh of relief when she reached the casino floor.  

Maybe signing her grandma up for the convention was a bad idea. Her grandma had a way of fanning the flames. And after several days of being cooped up in a hotel room without her usual cronies from the senior center, her grandma was more than ready for a little heat. 

* * *

Raina’s eyes popped open, but she didn’t dare move a muscle. Her gaze shifted around the hotel suite, looking for the source of the noise that woke her in the pre-dawn light. When she went to bed a few hours ago, she had locked the door but didn’t use the swing bar lock in case Matthew returned later. She took a deep breath but didn’t smell the clean water and sage body wash favored by her fiancé. Instead, there was a hint of gardenia and lilac in the air. A woman’s perfume. Was there a woman in the room? 

A bead of sweat trickled down the side of Raina’s forehead. Her tight muscles ached. Fight or flight? Warrior or possum? Who was this woman in her room? It was five in the morning. Much too early for housekeeping. And not late enough for burglary. This intruder must think the suite was empty, which meant this woman knew Matthew…or knew his whereabouts. 

Raina flipped off the covers and tiptoed to the dresser. She grabbed the pepper spray from her purse and tiptoed to the bedroom doorway. Taking a deep breath, she ran headlong toward the woman with her shoulder down as if ready to tackle her to the ground, screaming like a banshee. She could apologize later if the intruder turned out to be a friend. 

The intruder spun around and gasped, reaching for the doorknob. 

Raina stopped short at the terrified expression on Claire Boucher’s face. She stumbled on the carpet. What was the convention organizer doing in her room? 

Claire flung open the door and shot out of the room. 

Raina ran after her, pumping her arms and legs to keep up. Running on a treadmill in the hotel fitness room didn’t give her the same thrill as running on solid ground. And a chase really got her heart pumping. “Hey, Claire! Stop.” 

A door clicked open in front of her. Po Po popped her head out of the doorway. “Rainy? What are you—” 

Raina didn’t wait for her grandma to finish the question.  

The hallway was empty, so there was nothing to slow their race. Instead of heading for the elevators, Claire headed for the staircase. Raina hoped they were heading down rather than going up the staircase. Her lungs began to burn, and her legs ached. She ignored both sensations and clattered down the stairs after the woman. 

“Stop! I won’t hurt you,” Raina wheezed. At the moment she didn’t have the energy to swat a fly. 

Claire ignored her and kept running. She hopped down the last two steps and opened the door to the casino floor. For a middle-aged woman, she was in good shape. 

Raina’s foot crunched on something, and she stumbled in her stride. She grabbed the rail in time to stop from pitching headfirst down the stairs. She glanced down. It was one of Claire’s earrings.  

Half a heartbeat later, she flung open the door to the casino and ran out. The slot machines clanged even at this early hour. The lights were too bright, and several people were still gambling away. Raina spun around in a circle but couldn’t see the woman.  

Her breath came out in audible puffs, and her eyes scanned the open area in front of her. The early morning gamblers watched Raina from the corner of their eyes. One man openly leered at her. Jerk. 

Po Po waved and trotted towards her. Her grandma’s silvery hair with red streaks in it was smashed up on one side and curled like a duck’s tail on the other. Her dark brown eyes sparkled with mirth even in this early hour. Looped over one arm was a white bathrobe.

Raina put her hands onto her hips, resting her hands on…her bare flesh. What the— 

Heat rose to her face. This couldn’t be happening. She blinked, but her bare feet didn’t disappear. She had run after Claire in her sleeping attire—a tank top and her underwear. 

Every camera on the casino floor was probably enjoying the show. If only the floor would open at this moment and swallow her. The more she thought about it, the more horrified she felt. What if the general manager found out? This would reflect so poorly on her fiancé, who was hired by the casino to look into their security system. 

Someone cleared her throat. 

Raina glanced up from her toes. Her grandma held out the white bathrobe, and Raina put it on. The two of them headed for the elevators.  

“Head up high, Rainy. Move like a queen,” Po Po said.

Raina kept her head down. Easy for Po Po to say. Her grandma had on a T-shirt and yoga pants. 

When the doors slid closed, Po Po started chuckling. She covered her mouth with her hands. The chuckles turned into a full belly laugh. 

Raina’s face burned, but the corner of her lips twitched. No doubt about it—her life was a sitcom. At least there were no holes or stains in her underwear. She had to be thankful for the small stuff, right? 

Po Po followed Raina back into the suite she shared with Matthew and flopped down on the sofa in the sitting room. “Okay, what was that about? Who’s that woman?” 

Raina studied the entertainment unit. She opened the cabinet door. “Claire Boucher. She’s the organizer for the Rock and Jam Convention,” she called out over her shoulder. “When I woke up, she was searching for something here.” 

Po Po’s eyes glowed. “Were you able to get me a ticket? The convention is like the West Coast version of Nashville squeezed into a week. Amateur musicians, talent agents, and fans. Live music twenty-four seven in the various rooms.” She sighed. “It’s heaven.”

Raina gave her grandma an apologetic smile. “Sorry. It was full.”

Her grandma sighed again. “Oh, well. At least we got this little mystery to solve. It’s not murder, but it’s better than nothing. I wonder if she was drunk. Wouldn’t it be smarter to wait until midday to break into a hotel room? And she should have put on a pair of pantyhose over her face.” 

“Do criminals still do that? Most women I know don’t bother with pantyhose anymore. Maybe pantyhose is blasé for criminals too,” Raina said. “Besides, if she had walked down the hall with a pair of pantyhose over her face, the hotel security would be all over it.”  

Raina didn’t think for a moment this was a burglary. Claire had moved with practiced ease like she had formal training with espionage or was a career criminal. 

Po Po frowned. “I wonder why she targeted your room. Seems rather random.” 

Raina gave her grandma a sideways glance. While the room was under Matthew’s name, she had written down the room number for Claire. Did Claire recognize Raina’s name? And what was she looking for in the room? The door lock wasn’t jimmied, so she must have a key card.  

“I don’t think it was random,” Raina said and explained her logic. “I wish Matthew had told me what he was doing for the casino. What if this has to do with his work?” 

Po Po nodded. “Speaking of your fiancé, when was the last time you spoke to him?” 

“Two days ago. I’d expected Matthew to work, but I didn’t think he would disappear.” Raina hoped she kept the worry from her voice. 

Po Po glanced at the smartwatch on her wrist. “Let’s rendezvous for an early breakfast in an hour. And once we’ve got Maggie settled for the morning, we should talk to the General Manager.” 

Raina hesitated. As much as she would like to talk to someone in the hotel-casino, she was afraid of barging in on Matthew’s work. Her fiancé might have good reasons for his disappearance. “Let’s go talk to Claire first. This would give Matthew some time to get in touch. But let’s not say anything to Maggie. I don’t want her to worry.” 

“Rainy, I hate to break it to you, but grandmas always worry about their grandchildren. Maggie is no exception.” 

Raina suppressed a sigh. Yeah, she figured as much. The last thing she needed was two grandmas breathing down her neck while she searched for her missing fiancé in Sin City.

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