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“Hazy Grooms and Homicides” – Chapter 1

Please excuse the typos. My editors will clean it up in the editing process. ~Anne

Chapter 1 -Tighty Whities

"Are you sure there are no more tickets for the Rock ’n Jam Convention?” Raina Sun asked. “My grandma has been pacing the walls 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 the guests, everyone was more irritable at the longer lines at the restaurants and the increase 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 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 a whole another league. And this Rock ’n 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 focus 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 fiance 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 back 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 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 seemed 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 stumped 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 side 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 emptied, 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 woman, she was in good shape. 

Raina’s foot crunched on something, and she stumbled in her stride. She grabbed the rail in the time 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 and ran out. The slot machines clanged even in 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 opened 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 ran 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 close, Po Po started chuckling. She covered her mouth with her hands. The chuckles turn 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 ’n Jam convention,” she called out over her shoulder. “When I woke up, she was searching for something here.” 

“I wonder if she was drunk. Wouldn’t it be smarter to wait until mid-day 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 careered 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 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 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 his reason 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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