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.