Brimstone Kiss (Page 14)


Word was no unescorted mortal woman came out of the Sinkhole alive.

Naturally, I was planning to meet my very first unknown client in the Sinkhole. And no, I'm not immortal. Yet. If I didn't intend to be, I'd have to be on my guard.

Then I thought about whom... or what... I might be meeting tonight. The message machine tape featured a low, hissing voice, like all whispers. I listened to it several times that morning.

It said if I wanted to know more about the male skeleton-"the bone boy"-in the Sunset Park grave, I should meet my informant tonight at a place called Wrathbone's in the Sinkhole. The name had been spelled out so I got the initial W.

That gave me a clue to my mystery source and actually reassured me. I had my suspicions. Not too many people, or other entities, in Vegas knew-or guessed-about my quest besides Ric and my clients: Hector Nightwine, Snow, and Howard Hughes.

I'd need two things to enter-and leave-the Sinkhole: a disguise-so I wasn't hounded as Lilith-and serious weapons, both defensive and offensive. Oh, and a third thing: A way to find where the blamed place would be tonight.

The Sinkhole moves, you see, a mist of Hell's breath floating in the brimstone heat of the dark desert air like a nightmare oasis.

Post-Millennium Las Vegas is still paranoid about bad press. It may host a helluva lot of supernatural forces in 2013, but they all must fit the sales model. Even a pestilential pit like the Sinkhole attracted a certain kind of tourist. Being hard to find was an extra kick. And getting out was a lot harder than getting in. Or so they said.

"I hope you're planning on taking your hellhound to the Sinkhole with you," Hector Nightwine, my boss, said, sounding a teensy bit guilty, when I told him of my expedition in his manorial office that afternoon.

"Quicksilver is not a 'hellhound,' he's just a poor rescue dog."

Hector snorted. He does an awesome snort, being a bearded man of size and a connoisseur of blood-red wine, bizarre food forms and vintage films.

"And I'm Orson Welles," he sniffed.

Actually, he could be in Vegas nowadays, where the line between life and death is thinner than a honed straight razor's edge.

Quicksilver, who combined the huge size of a wolfhound with the disconcerting conformation and features of a blue-eyed 150-pound wolf, lifted his grandma-eating-size muzzle from his paws to whine like an abandoned puppy.

Hector snorted again. Majestically. "That dog could have outdone the heroic Rin Tin Tin in the early movies. He knows just when to second your extravagant lies."

"I can use loyal backup," I said, "especially since your damned show has made me the world's most wanted woman."

"Isn't that what all women want?"

"Not this one. Not this way." I ticked off my many pursuers on my fingers. "Cesar Cicereau of the Gehenna Hotel thought he could use me and then tried to kill me. Any creep who mistakes me for your highest rated CSI corpse, Lilith, wants to sell my hide to the black and blue division of the blue movie trade. The Las Vegas Metro Police Department's Detective Haskell has been bitten unhuman, into an even more loathsome variety of bully, and wants me either convicted of the murder of a Snow groupie or just plain dead out of revenge. For all I know, this mysterious 'client' wants to lure me into a meeting for some fate worse than death."

A sliver of smile peeked like a maggot from the corner of Nightwine's small, pursed candy-apple-red mouth.

"There are a lot of fates like that nowadays, my dear. Surely you're taking the Cadaver Kid along?"

I shrugged. If I was going to be a serious investigator, I needed to prove to him and myself that I didn't need a white knight behind my every move around Vegas.

Nightwine took my reticence for the affirmative, as I'd hoped.

"Very wise. A good dog and a good man are what a girl needs most in these perilous times."

"I thought you didn't like Ric."

Now he shrugged, a lot more impressively than I had. The shoulders in his burgundy brocade smoking jacket were mountainous. "Montoya's FBI, but at least he didn't stay in long. The Feds keep trying to close down my City of Dreams."

"City of Nightmares."

"As I said, my City of Dreams."

"I don't know why you're going all soft on me now that you're my landlord. You've always wanted me to find out who the guy in that Sunset Park double grave was. I've got a stake in your new vintage murder concept TV series. You were gonna make me a living-dead star, keep Lilith's mystique as a CSI's hottest corpse yet going. Remember? I couldn't do anything more dangerous in this town than get mistaken for Lilith."

"That's all true," he admitted. "I only fret because you're still new to Vegas. Good luck, Delilah. Do check in when you get back. Godfrey will be anxious."


I left Nightwine's sumptuous office, Quicksilver at my heels, to find his man Godfrey lurking and listening in the hall. Godfrey's amiable, middle-aged starch went splendidly with his formal butler's garb. He escorted us down the back stairs to the kitchen exit with a monologue of warnings underscored by the castanet click of Quick's nails on the wooden stairs.

"The master means well, but underestimates the sturdiness of his employees, Miss. He is used to dealing with staff less, er, physically fragile than a mortal such as yourself. The Sinkhole is not fit for woman or beast. Mr. Montoya is not so accustomed to Las Vegas and its quirks yet that he would make a reliable guide. I knew a poor chap from Bangalore -"

"Godfrey," I said, "that sounds like the start of a naughty limerick." When we hit bottom at the large kitchen floored in big black and white marble squares like a chessboard, I turned to face him. "Besides, I know what I'm doing."

Godfrey's CinSim face and garb were all black and white and shades of gray. He was a blend of actor William Powell and the disguised rich-man-posing-as-butler from My Man Godfrey, a classic nineteen-thirties screwball comedy.

I knew that beneath the slick film image the heart of a zombie didn't beat, but Godfrey felt solid when touched and his fully human concern touched me.

"Godfrey, I have to learn to live in this pretty nasty world I've found myself in, just as you have. I'm not tied to any particular place, as most of you CinSims are. A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do."

I nodded at Quick to follow me. We skedaddled out the back door, but not before Godfrey called after me, "Remember you're from Kansas. There might be some ruby red slippers somewhere to whisk you home in a pinch."

Poor Godfrey. He believed in movies almost as much as Nightwine did. It was only thirty yards across the cobblestone driveway to my digs. The sharp, reassuring sound of Quicksilver's nails still shadowed me. That dog was my fanged guardian metronome.

The place I rented from Hector was as cute as dimpled and spit-curled Betty Boop, the cartoon flapper. I fell in love again with my literal Enchanted Cottage every time I saw it. I considered it a real-life version of a vintage Disney cartoon cottage made for bluebells and bluebirds circling the front door, and sometimes they actually did.

Hector had added a lot of modern comforts, including a Jacuzzi and convection oven, but the cottage remained an unfolding origami magic show of kitchen witches, yard trolls and other usually invisible manifestations that came and went on their own quirky schedule.

Once home again, I caught up on the newspaper and current events and domestic chores that didn't get magically done by the shy household help before preparing an early evening snack.

"Better eat, drink up and be merry," I told Quicksilver. "We're going where you definitely don't want to consume anything you don't have to in self-defense."

I could soon hear him lapping up a tsunami at the kitchen water bowl while I changed into my impromptu Sinkhole outfit. As a TV reporter in Wichita, I wore business casual for the job. Here in Vegas I was going places where I needed clothes that would protect me from fang bites and claw burns.

I'd learned at an early age that bluff was the best disguise.

The use-softened black biker leathers I'd found at vintage clothes emporiums along Charleston would have looked Hell's Angels Goth with my black hair. Especially if I slapped on some vampire-red lip-gloss.

But after I struggled into the leather low-rise jeans, the knee-high boots, the spandex knit top and funky suede-fringed seventies vest, I pinned up my Black Beauty mane and pulled on my new short blond wig in the classic twenties/seventies Sassoon/so Neurotic Now bob that curves under your chin like twin scimitars.

The perfect disguise. Blonds were so plentiful in this town three hundred miles from Hollywood people literally couldn't see their faces for the façade. And the town sprouts wig shops like a transvestite creates female celebrity impersonations. Then I popped in gray contact lenses with no correction that obscured my morning-glory-blue eyes. Delilah, meet anti-Lilith.

The mirror accomplished the introduction. When the tall mirror ending the hall to the attic bedroom suite wasn't playing tricks and I wasn't in disguise, it reflected me in all my Snow White coloring and Lilith glory.

It was odd that the world thought Lilith, and therefore me, her double, beautiful. I'd always hated my dead-white skin and dead-black hair that reminded every vamp and half-vamp in the New Millennium universe that I came corpse-pale, just what they were looking for in a woman and a fast-food combo. I'd been fighting off vamp-boy bullies since puberty. It got so I'd rather fight than fornicate, even when I'd finally had a chance to do the latter.

I was making friends with my own image since I'd met Ric, though. His savvy, warm and winning personality and hot Latin blood were melting my Black Irish heart and hormones. I'd never had a boyfriend, only bad dates. I'd never had a lover or an orgasm. All that was past tense now and I'd wanted in the worst way to ask him to escort me to the Sinkhole.

Which is why I wouldn't. I don't like being dependent on other people. It only gets you hurt in the short run and makes you weak in the long run. Orphan's axiom. Dogs, on the other hand, offered unconditional love and unflagging doggy breath.

I slapped on some Lip Venom. I always carried the tingling, lip-plumping gloss because it made me feel lethal and viperish. Then I finished pinning on the wig with twenty copper-blond hairpins and was ready to go, except for donning the used cop utility belt I'd found in a pawn shop behind the Harley-Davidson souvenir shop and caf��.

It made me look hippy, but in a big baaad don't-mess-with-moi way. I kept the baton and heavy flashlight and added a couple kitchen knife hilts for show.

No cell phone. You could be identified by them. Las Vegas was full of dead zones, anyway. Nor did I have lots of relatives and friends to send pics of the infamous Sinkhole.

So where would I find the elusive Sinkhole, a notorious place where human and unhuman lowlifes did sex, drugs, armed robbery and grievous bodily harm to each other and any suicidal straights who wandered in?

I drove Dolly downtown near the crime district for starters. I wasn't worried about my flashy vintage ride even though it was hot enough to melt. It had its own special security system.

Soon after hitting town, Quicksilver had broken out a side window to escape the locked car and defend me from a half-werewolf biker gang called the Lunatics. The window was a one-off, long since vanished from even junkyards and online auto-part dealers. I mourned loudly about the impossibility of replacing the window when I got home and parked Dolly in the driveway of the Enchanted Cottage.

The next morning, I found the window-glass in place and intact. Ever since, when I parked Dolly in iffy areas, a nasty poison-green aura haloed the car. I figured it was pixie halitosis.

If I could bottle that arsenic glow, I'd have a really innovative method of car security. Nobody in Vegas messes with pixies, I'd learned fast. They're the equivalent of supernatural fleas: tiny, hungry, able to leap from one host to another in a single bound and bite. They cursed as much as your average American teenager, but real curses, not just bad words. Curses corrosive enough to move all the hair on your head to your toes.

So I left Dolly in the parking lot of a new high-rise time-share. Quick and I trotted through the Downtown "Experience"-a blocks-long barrel vault canopy, ninety feet high at its peak, that combined a pedestrian mall with a not-at-all-pedestrian sound and light show.

The venerable Four Queens Hotel and Casino had been reinvented as an exotic Temple to Ishtar, Medusa, Isis and the original sexpot Lilith. No Delilah. I guess overeager hair stylists aren't sexy-scary goddesses, even though it's sooo hard to stop them from snipping too much off.

Overhead holographic images evoked great world tragedies of fire and flood, featuring thousands of screaming, falling bodies hurtling right at you. There were no sappy Celine Dion renditions of "My Heart Must Go On." A rock band howled to back up their death agonies.

Tourists in Capri pants and Bermuda shorts were gaping open-mouthed at the kaleidoscope of destruction playing out above, tiny camcorders attached to their cell phone earjacks, so they could look and shoot instead of point and shoot. They resembled Borg wannabes. Creepy! Quick and I passed them like dust on the wind.

I headed for the area's outskirts. I figured that the Sinkhole would find you if you wanted it to. Or if you looked like you belonged there.

Amazing how even the biggest tourist attraction in the world makes room for sleaze. I was soon walking along unkempt strings of one-story shopping centers. Half of the shops were deserted. The other half sold fortunes, cut-price show tickets, lottery tickets, exotic lingerie and massages.

Beside me, Quick growled. I put my hand on his shoulder. It reached my hip. He was three times the size of most wolves. Good dog! The thin silver chain with a cross around my neck coiled like a snake and slithered down my black-knit sleeve to my wrist. It became the mace-like spikes on a leather wristband.

If my unwanted bodyguard was showing its fangs, we must be nearing the Sinkhole.

Quicksilver's hackles rose under my fingers along with his prolonged, low growl.

Good. We were there. Now all we needed was not to "get into" anything. I was hoping to tap the same eerie psychic energy that had helped me find the Sunset Park bodies when co-dowsing for the dead with Ric.

First I felt the heavy metal beat from the Downtown Experience quicken under my feet, through the thick leather soles of my motorcycle boots. It rumbled on and on, like Quicksilver's growl.

The sidewalk broke into smaller blocks, then heaved, then shattered.

The ground was giving way underneath us! I curled my fingers into Quick's thick black leather collar studded with silver-dollar-size moons in phase from crescent to full. If he hadn't been born half wolfhound, he would have been all wolf. As it was, he hated werewolves, even half-werewolves.

My punk leather wristband tightened hard enough to take my pulse.

Pounding. My pulse pounding.

Spinning. My head was spinning, the low-rise buildings around me were falling down, together. Ashes, ashes, all fall down.

We fell. Together. My fingernails digging into my own palms, Quicksilver's sharp wolfish muzzle tilted up at the moon.

And then the carnival music rose up to snap at our senses. We rode a merry-go-round of sound and fury screwing deep into the earth. I held on to the dog collar for dear life, Quick's and mine. No wonder it was called the Sinkhole.

We plunged, bucked, gained our feet and braced them. Stood.

In another world.

I looked at the slick, wet pavement, smooth as glass. Exotic heavenly bodies reflected in its surface, but when I looked up, all was matte black. No firmament, neither stars nor neon signs. I realized I was looking down through black glass. And the starry heavens were below us.

I inhaled deeply.

Quick looked up at me with blue eyes paled to mirror silver. I saw myself reflected in them: blond biker chick with icy gray CinSim eyes. Not really me. How would my skittish informer recognize me? I figured it had to be someone from Cicereau's mob. Cesar had tried to have me killed and failed. No one knew that but Ric and Cicereau's people.

Looking around, I heard the hiss of roller blades. Teens in black neoprene jumpsuits whizzed by on their narrow runners, one crouching to cruise between Quicksilver and me.

"Watch it," I yelled after the cheeky speed demon.

"You watch it, biker bitch!" the kid hollered back. "Watch me score rings around you."

Not what I was here for. I ducked into the nearest dark doorway. Two "doormen" stood guard at either side of the entrance: tall, lean figures so cadaverous they looked like candidates for Vegas coroner "Grisly" Bahr.

Even though their stinking breaths were as effectively repellent as laser security beams, we evidently passed muster and went through the doors. A flash indicated I had been photographed. Quick squeezed his eyes half shut. Don't modern security measures make your blue eyes blink?

My own eyes, with the gray contact lenses acting as indoor sunglasses, scoped out a mixed bag of supernatural sleazes at the crowded bar. They were all checking me out, visible drool decorating the corners of their mouths. No other women here. I retreated, Quick doing the back step with me until we were in the eerie, windless echo chamber of the Sinkhole's main drag again. It exhaled the same artificial pumped-in air of the Downtown Experience topside.

I checked the name of the first establishment we had seen, "Mudflaps" Limbo Bar," and joined the oddly silent figures shambling along the street. In the smoky fog, it was hard to make out their faces.

After ten minutes of what felt like walking on a treadmill, we didn't seem to have gotten anywhere. Could this be an outpost of Hell, a true "Limbo" of some kind? If so, the creatures of the underworld and overworld would mingle. One thing made the place really weird: the background chime and chuckle of slot machines was missing. There wasn't a casino to be heard down here. Unreal.

As if responding to my mental critique of the silence, distant wailing instruments began to play. Quick sat on his haunches to bay up at the moon. Well, where a moon would be. I saw someone had turned on a huge blood-red planet of shifting light that bled through our smoke Plexiglas sky like the Devil's nightlight.

Then I spotted a sign in soft white neon: Wrathbone.

This must be the place.

Inside, Wrathbone's was as dark as the Devil's left nostril.

The clientele crowding the bar and tables were a mob of human and unhuman cutthroats ranging from such past masters of villainy and oddity as Jack Sparrow's pirates to werewolf and vampire gangs to the Star Wars cantina denizens. Large white neon hieroglyphs lit the bordering dark brick walls. I didn't want to stare at any one individual or object because I didn't want to encourage attention. I was the most recognizably female person there and one of the few humans.

Maybe the creepiest unhuman in the place was the mummy wearing a black trench coat, felt fedora, dark glasses and black leather driving gloves in the corner.

Was he a Cinema Simulacrum or a Cinema Symbiant? His wrapped linen was wedding-day white and looked as crisp as priest's collar against the black accessories.

Had any of the classic thirties and forties mummy movies featured fashion-conscious mummies in contemporary clothing? No. They were all naked under the wrappings, and this one might be too. The creature lifted a spread-fingered hand to wave me over, hoisting a convivial low-ball glass with the other gloved hand.

A single chick out for the evening in the Sinkhole had a lot to consider.

Was this just a barside come-on or my blind date? Blind he certainly seemed, with those impenetrable glasses and a slit of black for a mouth. How he could sip a drink, I didn't know.

I'd find out soon enough. Besides, of all the unhumans eyeing me hungrily, he looked the least able to bite me. Sitting with him for a while would give me a chance to size up the other customers.

As my eyes adjusted to the low light, the decor became easier to grasp at a glance: what I'd taken for neon tubes were an endless chorus line of luminous skeletons hung with their hipbones at eye height. Some wore tatters of clothing. Some could be still hosting tatters of dried flesh. Tasty.

Yet, with their gaping eyeholes and Jolly Roger grins they seemed a carefree bunch. Their clothing ranged from bandoliers to bandanas and a Hawaiian shirt. The one that wore nothing but a bone necklace looked naked.

Them dry bones also packed a lot of weaponry thrust between ribs and hung from scapulae. I was hoping this was some sort of corny Western bar six-gun guest storage system, but a quick glance at the other patrons assured me that they were all more seriously armed than I was. Chains and shivs and daggers and semiautomatics, oh my.

I decided a mummy in a trench coat couldn't have been packing more than a semiautomatic or a sawed-off shotgun, so I headed for the only friendly face I saw, because it had no expression.

Quicksilver kept at heel all the way to the table while every eye in the place still in sockets shifted to watch us. I wasn't sure whether my dog or I was the bigger attention-getter.

"Grab a seat, doll," the mummy said.

"I'm surprised you can sit. Talk about tightly wrapped," I murmured as I pulled my captain's chair close to the table. Quicksilver stood guard beside me, his head at my shoulder-level.

"I'm not a mummy," the creature said in a flat baritone. "They were even dumber than zombies. Could only travel in that same slow, ineffective lurch. Get them mainlining Red Bull, they'd have had something. As for having mummy sex...You into peeling off Band-Aids forever as foreplay? I didn't think so."

He pulled out a lighter and a cigarette case and soon had a cancer stick twitching between his white-gauze lips. I couldn't help feeling nervous, as if I was watching Dorothy's flammable Scarecrow puffing away.

"Relax, Miss Street," he muttered under his breath and the cover of bluish smoke. "We're the normals here."

I almost recognized the whisper this time, and frowned. "Do I know you?"

He leaned in, extended his free gloved hand and pinched my thigh under the table.


Quick growled and snapped, but Cigarette-smoking Man's gloved hand was quicker than a magician's wrist action.

"Oooh," he drawled. "That's my quick-step girl. Glad I saved your, uh, carcass. Can't pinch an inch there. You are one smooth lady."

"What are you doing here?" I asked the Invisible Man, disgusted. Yes, he'd saved me from being torn into shreds by werewolf gangsters, but I'd hoped to meet some real Vegas unreals tonight.

"What am I doing here, doll? Seeing you in private," he smirked through the head wrappings.

We'd first crossed paths at the Inferno, and later the Gehenna, when he was truly invisible. He lived to pinch butt. I guess you can't blame a mad genius scientist who was probably a nerd when he became invisible in a 1933 film of his same name: The Invisible Man. Even the most depraved CinSim groupie, or CinSymb, wouldn't want to get it on with a celebrity you couldn't see.

"How do you manage to get around so much?" I asked. "The other CinSims are chained to their venues."

He paused to catch the eye of a passing half-werewolf waitress, the first obvious female I'd spotted, pointed to his empty glass, then in front of me. "I hope you like Old Fashioneds," he said. "I don't want that cute furry trick hanging around overhearing us while taking our orders."

"I've heard of the drink," I said. The cocktail had been out of fashion for more than half a century, almost as long as the Invisible Man. "You hang at the Inferno. Why was it necessary to meet here?"

He leaned close, whispering. "Christophe is a liberal master and I manage to get out on various missions for him, but this is a private meeting. Just you and me."

Mention of Christophe made me wonder what the silver ball and chain transformed from a lock of his albino hair was now. Aha! The token had subsided into a discreet locket around my neck. When I opened it, I found a tiny mirror version of my current disguise. I bet Snow would get a private kick out of seeing raven-haired me in platinum-blond guise!

Thinking about Snow always scratched my skin like invisible briars. I pushed those thoughts away along with the locket I snapped shut.

"Was following me when I was whisked from the Gehenna to Cicereau's lethal Starlight Lodge one of your assignments for Snow?"

"Not just every dame gets to call him that, you know," the Invisible Man answered, evading the question. "If you weren't alive and were a CinSim he'd have you doing hostess duty at the Inferno in a New York, New York minute for taking such a liberty."

So I thought about Christophe again. I had to. The silver locket on my breastbone stirred at the mention of his name and nickname. It crawled up my forearm to circle cozily around my biceps. What big ears you have, Snow.

All the better to hear you with, Delilah.

What big teeth, I thought, and then couldn't help adding. Bite me!

Wait! Was I issuing a smart quip or a death wish? It was hard to know the difference in this town.

"I don't know whether he's bad or good." The Invisible Man twisted a paper cocktail napkin in a gloved hand. "He-like your boss, Mr. Nightwine-does deal straight with us CinSims, though." I looked up from my alien accessory, surprised.

The fedora was nodding. "Yeah. CinSims know who our friends are. You, lady, are on the 'A List'."

"I-" Was surprised. Touched. Not sure I wanted to be in a category with Snow and Hector Nightwine, but, hey, I'd never had many friends. To be taken for one sounded...kinda cool.

The black leather glove had captured my hand just as the waitress dipped to put two murky orange drinks down before us.

"Have a fun evening, you two," she wished us, showing fangs.

Was her other half vampire? I wondered what kind of tip we could leave her. Blood or money?

And I really couldn't lead the Invisible Man on. He wasn't my type. Not that I have one. But now that Ric and I have been... wow! I do think about things like monogamy. Besides, he was middle-aged, squat and reminded me of Cesar Cicereau, the werewolf mob boss, at least physically. From my recall of his movies, as played by character actor Claude Rains, he was as sexually appealing as a demented toad. And that mad, disembodied laugh... Call me shallow, but a vintage character actor could never rev my melancholy Irish pulses.

Ric. Now we're talking different. There aren't a lot of Latino movie leads for reference, but think early Ricardo Montalban, pre-Wrath of Khan days, but with a lot of that fierce, sexy edge. Wrath of Khan, the Star Trek movie! Wrathman. Wrathbone.

I glanced at the Invisible Man. "Do I call you Dr. Jack Griffin or Claude Rains?"

"Either one. Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. Speaking as Dr. Griffin, I am brilliant, but quite mad from being invisible, and speaking as Mr. Rains, after all these decades stuck in the role, I am mad to take on other personas. Claude was claustrophobic and the black velvet suit I had to wear against black velvet to appear invisible for the film didn't help even my sanity. I find myself role-playing all over the map, and you will notice that I crave human contact, even of the rather crude sort. Being a Las Vegas attraction makes us CinSims part of a very exclusive twenty-first century Rat Pack, sometimes all in one package. Some of us can go country or pop. I brought backup." He nodded at a spot along the crowded bar.

And there was raven-haired Ricardo Montalban himself, lean and muscled in swashbuckler shirt and tight pants, in his Latin lover persona, not as the older (but still suave) Mr. Roarke of Fantasy Island. And decidedly not as the still-older and brutally wrathful Khan, a notable movie villain in his sixties with long gray hair. Still, you did not want to rile this man.

And...oh, my God, there was Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, also lean, both of mind and body, smoking a pipe and eyeing the cast of unhumans with eagle-sharp eyes from under his deerstalker.

I smiled at the Invisible Man's inviting two CinSims associated with the word "wrath/rath" on this outing. I'd have to find out where this unlikely pair was usually stationed before I left.

The Sherlock Holmes CinSim would never notice my Lilith lures, but Khan-to-be looked interested already. I'd rather flirt with the youthful leading man Montalban...maybe a water baby idyll, like he'd had with swim star Esther Williams in Neptune's Daughter. I was beginning to see the commercial appeal of the CinSims to the public. Fantasies fulfilled, from a casual meeting to a long, hot mating, only not in living color.

But... no thanks. I had the real deal. My deal. Ric. Whom I should have asked to escort me here, except I was trying to prove to him I didn't need him as protection. Or to prove it to myself. Who was I kidding?

Claude gestured for the two CinSims to join us. As they sauntered over, I eyed the rest of the clientele over the rim of the cloying drink. To us middle-class Kansans, they'd come across as the scum of the earth: gang bangers, bikers, low-rent muscle and hitmen, robbers and muggers, carjackers, sex and drug addicts. And those were just the humans.

I played the game of guessing which were the unhumans. There were enough CinSims here that some had to be CinSymbs. It struck me that today's Las Vegas was a city of strong dualities. Good/bad, lucky/unlucky, rich high roller/poor sucker, powerful men/weak but sexy women, faux/real and now, of course, alive/dead.