DEAD TIRED, I headed "home" in the early evening Las Vegas Strip traffic. Instead of sugarplums-or even three cherries in a slot machine window-other, far less delightful, images danced in my head.
I was only two days of sleep deprivation past an endless night fighting Vegas's hidden ancient Egyptian underworld of bloodthirsty supernaturals. My cup of nightmares was sure to runneth over for weeks with visions of zombie mummies, hyena carcasses, and vampires in eyeliner.
Even worse would be visual reruns of Ric chained to a dungeon wall under the Karnak Hotel, victim of a vicious suck-fest. That was the ancient Egyptian vampire empire's version of waterboarding as they sought the secret of his ability to raise the dead.
Now my investigative partner was out of the Karnak 's supernaturally infested bowels and alive, barely, in a high-rise suite at the rival Inferno Hotel. In an hour, Ricardo Montoya had gone from the pit of Hell to the heavens, or the Vegas version of both.
Following Ric's and my separate life-threatening investigations at the Karnak, I was alive but iffy on the matter of my soul and sanity. Ric was in a coma-possibly more dead than alive-and possibly possessed of a more compromised soul than I was.
I'd been too frantic to do anything but hover over Ric for hours and was finally heading home under doctor's orders to "freshen up" before returning to his comatose side.
Getting myself together enough to drive my big black '56 Caddy, Dolly, through brassy Vegas Strip traffic forced me to focus. My heart felt a faint ping of security when the Nightwine estate's iron side gates opened automatically to admit us.
After parking Dolly near the carriage house, I could hardly wait to enter my soothing rental digs and start to feel human again. In a city built on flash and flesh, unhuman seemed the dominant life, or death, form.
I headed for the Enchanted Cottage, then stopped. Its Hobbity front door formed a gray wooden frame for something black-and-white and silver all over that stood before it, blocking my way. Yes, this "something" was also "someone" I welcomed seeing. My favorite CinSim.
"Godfrey!" My voice quivered with mingled grief and joy.
"My dear Miss Street," he began in the brisk tones of that fine actor, William Powell, playing the ultra-competent My Man Godfrey in the 1936 romantic comedy film classic. "How splendid to see you alive and well and back on the premises."
Godfrey was my landlord's butler and looked more than double my age. He was actually three or four times it, depending whether you counted birth dates or film dates. Godfrey was as formal as an English tea caddy, but he'd been my first real friend in Las Vegas. That he was a Silver Screen movie image imposed on a zombie body "canvas" made him no less dear to me.
"Where is our Master Quicksilver?" he asked, worried and glancing behind me.
That's what an old-school butler like Godfrey called my adopted hundred-and-fifty-pound dog: "Master Quicksilver." Godfrey honored my canine companion by addressing him as he would a young male human. Quicksilver indeed had awesome qualities above and beyond the ordinary dog.
Godfrey's always amusing formality helped me focus even more. Stiff upper lip and all. Right.
"Quick's fine, Godfrey. I left him guarding Ric at the Inferno."
"Ah." Godfrey's pencil-thin black mustache twitched ever so slightly with sympathy. "I understand Mr. Montoya is secure and doing well in Christophe's magnificent establishment."
I noticed Godfrey hadn't described Ric as he had me, "alive and well."
"How do you know what's... happened?" I asked.
"Word gets out," he murmured, as discreet as ever.
"'Word.'" My stress-dulled mind grabbed that one piece of mental flotsam and clung to it.
APPARENTLY, "WORD" HAD been thorough enough to make everyone I knew uncomfortable with the "alive" designation for Ric's current state.
That kicked me back into reliving the nightmare of Ric's rescue. I saw our war party retreating quickly through a trail of downed Egyptian warriors, attack mummies, and hyenas as the underground River Nile became one of the rivers of Hell flowing beneath Snow's Inferno Hotel.
Snow's security head, Grizelle, a six-feet-something black supermodel type who can turn that catwalk strut into the stalking stride of a six-hundred-pound white tiger, had borne Ric's unconscious body along so fast she was out of sight.
Snow, acting fast like the big shot he was, had already arranged a state-of-the-art hospital suite in the hotel. No outsiders would know what had happened to Ric. The Vegas bigwigs involved wanted news of a rival supernatural vampire empire at the Karnak kept secret.
I was just as eager to keep Ric's one paranormal power private.
When I caught up with Grizelle at the hotel's forty-second-floor high-roller penthouses, I'd found Snow's designated hospital site was the bridal suite. Ouch.
Snow always played Mr. Discreet, but, like the scorpion, his every move could bear a sting in its tail. My "bridegroom" might never awaken.
I couldn't carp about the setup.
Ric was soon ensconced in a hospital bed so accessorized it resembled a Bowflex home gym. He had twenty-four-hour guards and nursing care. As he slept, blood dripped around-the-clock into his circulatory system, an oddly vampiric process.
That last memory of him made me shudder now.
" MISS STREET." GODFREY gently broke into my dark trip down bad-memory lane. "You're not here to brood, but to rest, recover, and change clothes. Please go inside and do that."
"Oh. Yes. Yes, Godfrey." I looked down at the shopping bags dangling in my hands. "Thanks for packing me some things to use at the Inferno. I'm going right back, of course. Directly back."
"Of course." He used that agreeable tone that didn't quite gibe with what he just said. "I'll wait here until you're safely inside."
"Getting pushy, are we, Godfrey?" I smiled. "I'm supersafe on Nightwine's ultrasecure estate. I'm just not safe alone inside myself right now."
I let Godfrey feel useful. He took and slid my key card into the door slot, nodding good-bye as I shuffled my boot-clad feet over the threshold. Everything inside looked the same, but seemed oddly alien.
I felt like I'd been on a two-day bender-like Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend-although alcohol hadn't been my downfall. Since I work freelance, weekends don't have the significance for a 24/7 on-call snoop like me that they hold for the forty-hour-a-week wage slave I used to be.
Life in post-Millennium Revelation Las Vegas is one long-one might even say eternal-Lost Weekend anyway. Before the millennium turned, party-hearty Vegas was full up with social vices... drinking, dicing, doing anyone and any illegal substances in sight.
Me, here and now, I'd just OD'ed on fighting supernatural crime. I ached from ankle to angst, but mostly I was mentally sucked dry.
I'd left the Enchanted Cottage thirty-six hours earlier a relatively well-adjusted woman with a mildly important mission... handling a rogue CinSim at the Inferno Hotel. That was more a public relations assignment than a serious case for a fledgling paranormal investigator.
Here I was coming home a virtual zombie, a husk who'd danced cheek-to-cheek with sex and death and destruction and-even more blasphemously-perhaps given life.
When I left my fairy-tale digs I hadn't anticipated meeting a particularly iconic CinSim: Humphrey Bogart as "gin joint" owner Rick Blaine in the 1942 film classic Casablanca. Who wouldn't want to share a bar with Mr. Noir Guy, even if he was just a CinSim?
Once placed, CinSims are chipped to stay where put, within a room or a set range of so many feet. They are property on loan. One of them strolling off assigned premises, even in their home hotel, was big news.
Wouldn't you know it was tough-guy Bogart/Blaine who'd wandered from his proper place in the hellfire bowels of the Inferno Hotel? He'd made it all the way to the ground-level bar. There he'd asked for me, Delilah Street. Well, he didn't exactly ask for me, personally.
He'd muttered about a woman of my description: "black and blue." That's me on a police blotter-black hair, blue eyes. Add a funeral-lily pale complexion and red lips and you have Snow White wearing Lip Venom gloss.
Since my "summoning" then and my exhausted return now, my attire had gone from a midnight-blue velvet gown among my personal vintage clothes collection to an armored catsuit fit for a sixties James Bond movie action cl**ax.
The steel-studded, patent-leather suit and crotch-high flat-heeled boots I wore, sans the black mail hood, were unnaturally light and tight and adapted to the wearer's physical dimensions, permanently.
At least Grizelle said so.
That's why I'd worn the thing home under a jersey caftan. The suit moved like muscle with my weary body and kept me upright, thanks to spandex and some possibly supernatural spell known only to Snow.
For all its creepy flexibility, the outfit felt as hard as a scarab's shiny carapace. Inside it my joints creaked as if cased in concrete. My mind felt duller than a battle-worn sword and my heart heavier than a black hole filled with lead.
How odd that instead of a weapon I now toted something as trivial as a Prada shopping bag loaded with my clothes from my original dress-up outing to the Inferno. I pulled out midnight-blue sequined pumps-call them Dorothy Gale in mourning-and matching evening bag, and a tiny but significant container of Lip Venom plumping gloss.
All very chichi, yet to me the limp blue velvet vintage gown draping the crook of my arm was now about as attractive as a vamp-drained corpse.
I let it slide to the floor with the shoes and bag as soon as I crossed the cottage threshold, the beginning of my personal safety zone.
There was no place like the Enchanted Cottage for R &R.
My landlord, another triple threat like Snow-TV producer, film buff, and morbidity entrepreneur Hector Nightwine-had duplicated a film set as a livable guest house on his estate.
I can't swallow the fairy tale that quaint settings create a stage for true love, as happened in that movie. Still, since the Enchanted Cottage had been recreated in post-Millennium Revelation Las Vegas, what had been merely "charming" before was now actually "charmed," in the sense of hosting a mostly unseen magical staff.
Yup, I knew that lodging me here was like reinventing Snow White with pixies and gnomes instead of workaholic dwarfs. The best part was these shy, often unseen creatures worked for me, not Hector.
And work they did, leaving no domestic duties to distract this kick-ass late-model Snow White from just how bad things looked for her Prince Charming.
A FIRE DID a mazurka in my parlor fireplace, even though this was a simmering Las Vegas June. The parlor was a shadowed Victorian retreat crammed with bric-a-brac. I veered toward the comfort inside, drawn by the hearth flames as if they were the bloodied, beating heart I imagined pulsing inside my own body.
The lobster-tank-size plasma television in the media corner reflected my passage. I jerked to a stop and whirled to face it, my hand reaching for a weapons belt I'd left behind in the Inferno's bridal suite.
I spied only a shadow of myself, black-on-black. Or maybe my doppelganger, Lilith, was moving in that dark world I could sometimes walk into through mirrors. Even the promise of one of Lil's rare personal appearances couldn't breach my frozen self at this lost moment.
I went to the wooden mantel above the fireplace, focusing on the black glass vase embossed with the undulating form of a five-toed imperial Chinese dragon. It drew me as if it too held the magnetic warmth of a hearth fire.
With Quicksilver guarding my sleeping prince at the Inferno, my first dog waited here to welcome me home. Sort of.
Achilles' ashes rested inside the black mantel top vase. I stroked the dragon on it. Now I'd actually seen one breathing fire.
A blackened ring with a green stone was a new addition to the mantelpiece, a gift from a strange old lady living a half-life at a Sunset City retirement village near Vegas. She'd recently acquainted me with the historic and fearsome medieval Parisian dragon Gargouille, whom I'd just met in person and in massive physical form when Snow had resurrected it from its ashes.
How's that for a brand-new Las Vegas attraction? I tried to laugh at the thought, but couldn't.
I edged down the mantelpiece to inspect an alien addition. Wow. A huge juicy muffin squatted on a china plate. EAT ME, a paper tag ordered in tiny type. Beside it, a mug of tea broadcast the seductive, steamy scent of licorice. DRINK ME, a matching tag read.
Eat me. Drink me. I grimaced at the hidden sexual and sacrificial religious undertones I now saw in those "whimsical" Alice in Wonderland instructions.
Muffin. Tea. How homey. I hadn't eaten in... thirty-six hours. My body needed this, I knew. So I took my post-battle snacks to the upholstered wing chair near the fire, setting plate and cup on a small end table.
The cranberry-walnut muffin was delicious, but I noted the taste from a distance and used the tea to wash it away until I felt refreshed enough to walk upstairs.
The tall mirror at the upper hall's dimly lit end was as dark and unseeing as an ordinary mirror, though it was made of unusual front-surface glass with a blue cast.
Nothing moved in the looking-glass now, not the ghost of a mobster's daughter named Loretta Cicereau, not my doppelganger, Lilith Quince. Not even my reflection. Did a black mourning pall now obscure the sometimes magical surface?
The cottage interior was a strange blend of an earlier century's country charm abetted by up-to-the-minute conveniences. My bed was an old-fashioned four-poster but I could hear the modern Jacuzzi bubbling in the adjoining bathroom.
I entered the bedroom to find the Enchanted Cottage shocking the patent-leather boots off me once more. Someone or something had suspended a white-linen 1940s frock from a hook beside a closet that had expanded to hold all my clothing, vintage and contemporary. Below the dress waited white lace-up oxford pumps to match. Who'd been playing personal shopper in my closet?