Some women crumbled when evil struck—Liz refused. The casino host would make her ex-client Billy Boy pay. Somehow. To be determined. And despite all the wrongs, she still had a perfect life: loving boyfriend, wealthy customers, wonderful colleagues. Never mind that her lover defended his rich cretin of a friend and her boss deserved an expletive as title. Everything had to be perfect before a date. Everything. Perfect.
A memo her central air conditioning had not gotten, straining under the punishing Las Vegas July heat. Nevertheless, the petite blonde slaved over the ironing board in the dining area, steam pressing the front of her white summer dress for the third time. Sweat pearled on her naked skin. Already in her birthday suit, she had only one means left to make the chore bearable. After spritzing water on the fabric, she lavished the cooling mist on her body.
A loud hiss from her cat Tuxedo cut through the television soundtrack. Perched on the sofa, his pointy ears twitched back and forth, honing in on sounds Liz failed to hear. While his long tail made wide swings, his green eyes fixed on the French door leading to the back patio.
She swigged ice water from the glass behind her on the kitchen counter while muting the program with the remote, then wandered to the living area to comfort her nervous cat.
Tux crouched, his black-and-white fur bristling. When she reached for him, his claws shot out. “Ouch. What's wrong?”
Nothing out of the ordinary in the great room. The scorching sun sent its usual golden orange flickers through the slits in the open blinds. Did he overreact to the light reflecting from the polished cherry wood dining set? Cats have a sixth sense for danger. Maybe even a ninth sense.
Red filled the flatscreen on the wall facing the sofa. Stupid, streaming one of the gory vampire movies still popular in the early twenty-tens, no matter how handsome the leading men. Even at twenty-five-years-old, she still scared easily. Another scan of the large space came up empty. No hazy apparitions wafting around, no bats flying, and no writing in blood on any wall. The pleasant smell of the flowery air freshener hid any stink of undeads past or present.
Did Tux’s seventh sense pick up some imperceptible entity? Not that she believed in ghosts, but just in case, she made the sign of the cross. Cheap insurance at times like this.
A faint noise grew to a rumble.
“Just planes flying low over the house again. Won't ruin our day off work, right?”
His fangs showing, Tux glared at the door and snarled.
“Boscoe in the backyard, right?” Her neighbor's Doberman went on a romp anytime an open door presented an opportunity. Perhaps the pool man had left the gate to her backyard open.
More hissing. Definitely not her cat's normal behavior.
After two month, did Billy Boy have the nerve to come to her house—payback for her filing a criminal complaint against him? “No way!” She dashed to the dining room patio door and turned the lock and deadbolt.
If she had only been more careful in the luxury suite thirty stories above the myriad colored lights of the Las Vegas Strip. Tuxedo would have known better. He would have heard the missing footsteps, when the four dressed-up goons had stayed behind. Downstairs, in the living room. He would have hissed danger when only one pair of Gucci loafers thudded up the wooden steps behind her. Upstairs, to the bedroom. If she had only taken him along. But if Liz could sense danger coming, she would not need a clairvoyant cat to begin with.
Instead, she had overlooked the signs. Let the playboy’s custom-tailored suit and gold Rolex Yacht-Master blind her. His woodsy cologne suggestive of Acqua di Gio. His boyish brown eyes. And his innocent, childish name. He insisted on it. Billy Boy.
Previous resort guests had lusted after her hourglass figure under the guise of getting a personal tour of the amenities like the rooftop plunge pool with a view. No one like him, however. Handsome, dark, curly hair, and her own age. And like many high rollers she attended to, he disregarded that casino hosts belonged to the management team, not the entertainment troupe.
Would Tux have figured that a New York City buddy of her own boyfriend would dare attack her? At first, she ignored the phony Italian wiseguy accent. Why did she not leave right after showing him the on-demand video streaming library, when his creep factor finally crept under her skin? She suggested one of her faves, Titanic. The scene in the freezing water where the hero hangs on for dear life made her cry every time. Billy Boy’s words haunted her: “Not my cup of vodka, if you know what I mean, Doll. Now, Godfather, that's un classico. I know every line by heart.”
Shoulda known right then, only a criminal mind commits that gangsta' movie to memory.
Cats' eighth sense would have warned them. Regardless, if it failed, they would have given it to the prick good anyway. Cutesy girl cats carry sharp claws and pointed fangs. Painful. Persuasive. Powerful. Unlike Liz, who needed high heels to match the height of most men, a precarious balance that prevented running away when things got tough.
The thunderous racket drew nearer.
This time, in her own castle, she had her cat alarm to warn her. Her heavy breathing competed against the noise outside while she stared at her naked reflection in the glass squares. No need to expose herself to a lecherous prowler. The police will say she asked for it, like last time. As Billy Boy had proclaimed, his gorillas signed statements that she flirted, teased, and went willingly into the bedroom. The detectives dismissed her bruises and injuries. Women like rough sex. The troubling memories pushed her pounding heart into overdrive.
Her dress had dropped out of sight. The big pool towel she kept at a ready for spontaneous cool-down dips still graced a chair. Liz threw the terrycloth over her shoulders and dashed into the open kitchen. Her hand reached for the long carving knife in the block next to the soda maker.
Ka-boom! A deafening explosion shook the one-story house.
Tuxedo darted for the safety of the master bedroom.
Liz staggered. The towel took flight while the knife took a dive. Her flailing arms swiped across the kitchen counter, catching her drink. The glass shattered on the tile, sending ice cubes and water flying. Her shoulder and elbow hit the floor. Her head followed. Stinging pain mixed with dizziness.
Stunned, she stared at the ceiling. Did the world finally explode from the unbearable heat? Her hammering heart nearly drowned out the ringing in her ears. She reached up and grabbed the edge of the counter. Every movement of her arm hurt. Liz struggled to sit. She leaned her head against the cabinet and caught her breath.
No bleeding and no damage other than the glass shards. Her trembling fingers grabbed the wood handle of the knife. Holding on to the counter, she pulled herself to her feet. Confusion mixed with fear. Run? Hide? What's going on?
Brrrr. More rumbling noises and goose-bump-inducing cold flowing over her bare skin made her shiver. She looked at the vent above her. Only the air conditioner finally putting out.
Gripping her weapon tight with her shaking hand, Liz stumbled to the patio door and stopped. Dazzling bright light flashed through the blinds, making it difficult to see outside. Not Boscoe for sure. Dogs do not possess heavy artillery. At least none that she knew.
A murderous hit by Billy Boy to silence her? She should have taken out that psycho. All her boss’s fault. He ordered her to counseling. As if talking would do anything. Revenge is a dish best served with few words. Many, many date-night action movies had convinced her. Don't give speeches—just do it.
Liz reached for the knob, then pulled back. Tuxedo did the right thing. Cats always do. Curiosity also kills cats. But does it kill humans?
Gotta know what's out there. She opened the door a crack. Dank sauna air greeted her instead of the usual dry Las Vegas heat. Stepping out into the open, she stared at the tiled rim of an empty pool while shielding her eyes from the blinding glare on one side. Every small step forward confirmed her initial suspicion. Forty thousand gallons of water had evaporated into thin air, literally. A hot mist lingered over the backyard. She stopped at the edge of the huge basin and peered down. At the deep end, below the diving board, a bath-tub-sized hole covered in black soot stood out against the white plaster. Cracks spread out from there across the dry bottom and wall. Intense heat irradiated her bare skin. Bright flashes made her dizzy.
Her legs gave way.
Concrete scratched her arm and shoulder.
Darkness took over.
Liz came to and squinted. Light and heat everywhere. And pain. From her bare toes to her head, a blanket of hot needles seared her skin. The hard ground irritated her sore shoulder, while the bright sun burnt her other side. What happened? She remembered Tux going crazy, a big bang, and a fall. Despite her spinning head, she pushed herself up. No one in the backyard. A stillness lingered. Her neighbors were at work. The heat dissuaded even the birds from chirping. Only an occasional car engine droned in the distance.
Her dizziness mellowed, but the pain all over her body did not. Sunburn covered her front. She stared at her red arm that had been buried under her body. “How did I get fried there? Gonna hurt like hell for weeks,” she muttered. Her gaze fell on the pool. Dry, white plaster and shiny, black soot instead of wet, blue water. No nightmare. All gone. Creepy. A flashing light from the deep end irritated her eyes.
She held out her hand to block the bright rays. Steamy air whooshed toward her. Something incredibly hot smacked into her palm. Liz screamed and furiously shook her hand. Small, black balls dropped to the ground, sending cracks racing across the pink pool decking. She jumped back. “What the hell?”
The freakiness overwhelmed her mind. Liz dragged her aching body into the house. No sign of her cat. She stepped around the broken glass, collected the towel from the floor, and soaked it at the kitchen faucet. Any touch, even merely wringing out the cool liquid onto her tortured skin, brought tears to her eyes. She dropped the terrycloth onto the counter, dangled her arms, closed her eyes, and listened to the sound of her breathing. Her headache dissipated enough for her to step outside again, towel and knife in hand.
After a quick assessment of the disaster in her backyard, she crouched next to the culprit, a small black ball. Something scarcely larger than the marbles she and her sister had played with as kids had devastated her pool. With help from its minions. Four small, black spheres the size of peas laid scattered around it. The heat radiating from the bigger one had dropped to a bearable level, allowing her a closer look. Swirls on the surface moved like shiny, flowing streams of metal.
She cloaked the larger ball with the wet towel, picked up the hot package and the knife, and carefully placed the objects on the round patio table. The metal creaked. With a bang, the table collapsed.
Police sirens approached from both ends of the street.
“This isn't happening. Wake up.” Liz fished the items out of the twisted table. She stared at the ball, and then placed it on a metal chair. It pancaked onto the concrete with another loud bang. She grabbed the strange sphere again. “C'mon. Don't do that.”
Why was she even talking to the hostile object? Just as pointless as wielding a cooking knife against black magic. Or the heat frying her brain. The pile of scrap metal on her patio had to be a hallucination. It had to be.
A rattling noise came from the metal gate to the backyard. “Hello, Metro police! Anybody home?”
“Yeah, I'm here,” she yelled back. “I think.” Liz stared at the things in her hand. “This is crazy. They'll think I'm psycho.” I'm naked! “Just a sec'.” The ball and her dangerous weapon ended up under the wood mulch of the palm trees standing guard next to the fence. Despite her tender skin, she fastened the towel around her chest, then dragged her sore body to the side of the house.
Two officers, eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, hands resting on their holstered guns, hung back behind the metal bars. She waved them inside. The female, her black hair tied back into a ponytail, approached the empty pool and stared into it. “What happened here?”
The hunky policeman, reading from a clipboard, approached. “You Elizabeth Brass?”
“Yeah.” The eye candy notwithstanding, she instinctively crossed her arms, but the stinging pain of her burns forced her to loosen her grip.
“Are you okay? I can call an ambulance.” He reached for the microphone on his shoulder.
“I'm fine. Just a sunburn.”
He studied her bare legs while cracking a smile. “You…have some kind of ID?”
“My purse's inside.”
Good excuse for hiding her naked body from this playboy. She knew his type. In her job, she figured out men for a living. This one definitely thought he was God's gift. She headed to her bedroom. Liz pulled a red kimono from her closet, clenched her teeth, and slipped into it. The light, cool touch of silk would cause the least pain. She stepped outside with her Nevada driver license in hand.
The woman officer stood at the far end of the pool with a tall man in a short-sleeved white shirt and a typical tourist tie dotted with tiny dice, chips, and playing cards. His hairdo, something out of a 70s TV show, had as much style as his hideous necktie. Liz joined the two, who towered over her.
“Detective Dick Rogan, Sexual Assault Unit.” His hands never left the pockets of his black pants. Dusty brown shoes matched the color of his thinning hair, which barely covered the bald spot developing on the back of his head. “Someone reported an explosion in your yard. The guys called me in, cuz it may have something to do with your case on file. Mrs. Brass, you're—”
“It's ‘Miss,’ but ‘Liz’ is fine.”
He sized her up. “Okay, Liz. You're a casino host?”
“A tad young. What are you, twenty-five?”
“Don't you know it's impolite to ask?”
What a stupid look on his face. Liz knew his type, too. In Latin. Ignoramus Moronus. She hid her hand with her ID behind her back. No point adding police insult to injury from the haters among her older colleagues, who resented her meteoric rise in the corporation.
Rogan cleared his throat and turned his stare back to the pool. “You filed a rape complaint two months ago against one of your high roller customers, a William—”
“The old guy, Detective Macintosh.”
“Retired last week.”
“Lovely. I get to clue you in all over again, so maybe this time you'll do something about that little psycho?” She rolled her eyes. “I gave Mac everything, description, pics, Billy Boy's phone number. But his Daddy's a big shot in New York, so you'll let him off the hook, right?” She slightly parted the collar of her kimono with both hands. “Wanna screw me, too, teach the slut a lesson? That's the job of you pigs in this town, right?”
If he understood the insult, he hid it well. “Still working the case. That’s why I'm here. When your address came up, figured it's related. You're the only witness.”
“Lovely. If you morons had arrested him already, none of this would have happened.” She glanced at the big hole in the bottom of her pool revealing the dirt underneath. “Guess the bomb came with a free grave. What a deal.”
Nincompoop. Liz scrunched her face. “Of course! Sun destroys the plaster. Everybody knows that.”
Rogan knelt at the edge and stared at the devastated floor. “Some kind of rocket. Never heard of anything that can vaporize all the water and the plaster.”
Liz shrugged. “This is just a dream. When I wake up, I'll find a pool full of refreshing water, and…” …no idiots giving me a hard time for nothin'. She wanted to pinch herself to make the police disappear, but her body had endured enough pain already.
The uniformed hunk walked back into view. “CSI's on their way with a whole forensics team. This is major.”
The hot concrete walkway had cooked the soles of her feet. “I'm not feeling well.” Liz closed her eyes for a moment to block out her pool and Rogan’s fashion disasters. “Are we done?”
He nodded sideways. “For now. Hang around. May have more questions. You need an ambulance?”
She shook her head, turned around, and strolled back on the cooler decking along the pool edge. When she got close, the four pea-sized spheres rolled toward her and stuck to her foot. “Whatev'.”
After a restless and itchy night sleeping in the nude, the pain reared its prickly fangs the moment Liz raised her head. Reality dashed her hope of awaking from the nightmare. How did she get a sunburn everywhere lying on her side? Staying in bed a while longer, she replayed yesterday's events. A rocket had attacked her house, destroyed her pool, and left behind fiery hot black debris. The bright light must have fried her. The thought made her freeze. Oh my gosh, they're radioactive. After enduring scores of action movies on pointless dates, she knew something about radiation sickness: nausea, vomiting, loss of hair. A frantic pull on her precious blonde locks confirmed that, other than her hurting skin, she showed none of the symptoms. Liz glanced at the little black spheres cornered peacefully behind her big Fendi crossbody bag. “Your mama's still outside in the heat. Let that be a lesson. You guys cost me dearly, you know.”
Her boyfriend had canceled their date on her regular day off. Maybe she whined too much about even the slightest touch hurting. Still, he did not have to abandon her, but Martin had no compassion for tears. A credit manager from another casino, he talked more shop than romance. The curse of Las Vegas: anybody she met was either a tourist or in the industry. He did introduce her to a few high rollers—Billy Boy for one. Perhaps the black balls were a sign of more trouble to come from the two men.
She strolled outside naked. Let the neighbors watch if they wanted to. Any fabric was too painful right now. The sight of the pool surrounded by yellow tape hung on plastic A-frame barricades made her cry. From the huge hole, cracks radiated out along two walls and half the floor. The new plaster had eaten up over five thousand dollars, most of her savings. All for nothing.
Damn balls! Liz made a fist, but her burnt palm hurt too much. She walked out to the trees where she had hidden the strange marble and carefully pushed aside the rock mulch until she spotted the matte black surface, then poked it with a toe. Nothing. No heat. No movement. When she reached for it, the sphere jumped into her hand. She jerked back, but held on.
A wasp honed in and buzzed around the ball. Liz screamed, ducked, and swatted at the insect. It shot across the patio. A gust blew dirt and palm seeds to the sides. In its wake, a metal pole bent with a groan. The attached corrugated patio roof sagged, sending dead palm branches crashing to the floor and a flock of pigeons scrambling into the sky. The ball slipped out of her hand, blasted past the mulch pieces with crackling noises, and sank into the dirt.
Did I just do that? Shocked, she looked at her bare hands, then screamed. “Stop it! You're destroying my house.”
Liz's foot snapped back to kick the damn ball, but stinging pain in her joints taught her better. How did Billy Boy get a rocket to make her life miserable? So unfair.
Instead of stomping her hurting foot, she turned, and marched back into the house. Rot in that hole, stupid thing.
A liberal application of body milk with aloe vera soothed her aching skin. Music from her alarm clock reminded Liz of her job taking care of gamblers at a luxury resort on the Las Vegas Strip. Anything from comped meals and rooms to finding that special something for a particular occasion—if a valued client needed it, she made it happen. Since most of them arrived after lunchtime, she worked swing shift. Extended swing shift, really, since a host's phone does twenty-four-hour duty. The damn ball had robbed her of the precious rest she needed to tend to players late at night. Regardless, the sunburn made surviving even a few hours in clothes unlikely.
Maybe she should just call in sick. A check of her smartphone convinced her otherwise. Señor Vasquez was en route from Mexico. The dirty old man with a not-so-secret crush on her always requested his favorite host, and routinely greased her palm with thousand-dollar chips. Unseemly, but after yesterday's catastrophe, she needed them.
A loose-fitting light dress sans constricting underwear would have to do. Bouncing breasts invited too many lecherous looks, however. Some in the casino already blamed her for bringing the alleged rape on herself with her risqué attire. Hosts usually dressed conservatively. She tossed a bra into the freezer. Perhaps the cold would sooth her burning nipples?
Why not just chuck this phony job? If people already considered her a professional slut, why not get paid as one? Strippers made good money with minimal clothing. Hookers charged hundreds of dollars for an hour's work including the same groveling and fake smiles she employed. Then again, every vice citation severely cut into profits. Nor did she relish a night in jail. After bailing out numerous drunken clients, she knew something about the horrors of the county's holding cells. Liz sighed, popped an aspirin, and strapped on her icy bra. Ouch! This really hurts.
When she grabbed her handbag, the devoted black balls came rolling toward her. She picked one up and studied it. The same matte finish as their mother, but less damaging to her floor. Cold to the touch. A sniff revealed no odor. The thought of a taste test made her gag. Enough dry studies. Time for some action.
She swiped her hand across the bed. Clack. Liz jumped, when the square decorative pillow suddenly sailed across the room and knocked the alarm clock from the nightstand. Wow! An invisible force delivered large results with little effort, like magic. “Spooky.”
She made the sign of the cross, then stared at the powerful pea. “Who are you really, my friend or my foe?” For a moment, she took stock of the items in the room. Love or faith may not truly move mountains, but maybe Black Ball could. Liz tried again with a more sweeping motion. Two big pillows, the small neck roll, and a menagerie of stuffed animals tumbled to the floor. Cool! She switched hands, but lifting the items from afar proved too difficult, so she carefully placed her stuffed unicorn and its companions back on the comforter.
Nevertheless, throwing things off the bed did excite her. Wandering from the open kitchen to the other end of the great room, she swiped her hand at various objects. A pot slid across the counter. Chairs and the dining table skidded out of the way. She took a whack at the sofa. With little effort from her, it moved three feet. Shocked Tuxedo scampered off the soft perch and fled across the rug to hide behind the entertainment center.
Awesome. The little balls turned into a belated birthday gift. Not from Billy, but for him! Daydreams of her tormentor starring in a slapstick tragedy with lots of slap and even more stick made her smile. The next rapist will never know what hit him. Smiling, she dropped the black sphere into her handbag. A jolt went through her. What have I done? She peered into the darkness of the Fendi. “You behave in there. Don't destroy my stuff, okay?” Silence. An acceptable answer this time.
Liz browsed through the calendar on her Smartphone to September 2013. Only two months to the Fall Fashion Week in New York City. One last check of her itching outfit in the hallway mirror. Despite her lingering pain, she twirled around with delight. She had plenty of vacation days left for a surprise date with Billy Boy. A big surprise for him for sure.