The Filipino kitchen steward reached for one of the sex toys that we’d confiscated from his work locker. Leaning over my desk, he waved it in front of my face. “You try, I promise you like.”
At a loss for words, a flush burning my cheeks, I looked at Alan Harris, the Security Director, for help.
He had his lips pressed tightly together. His eyes watered from the effort to keep from laughing. I scowled at him. Rearranging his face into an appropriate somber expression, he turned to the man, took the item out of his hands, and laid it back on the desk.
“Please sit down Mr. Pinos. What Ms. Peterson is trying to tell you is that you can’t keep these things in your locker. It’s against the rules.”
“No can keep here? But people need to see to buy.” Mr. Pinos sat down looking thoroughly confused.
For the last ten minutes, we had been trying to explain to Mr. Pinos that he couldn’t supplement his income by selling sex toys out of his locker to other employees on property. Even after his supervisor finally arrived and explained it to him in his native language, Tagalog, Mr. Pinos continued to argue. The only words I understood were “Las Vegas.”
His supervisor turned to us and explained in English, “Mr. Pinos is shocked a casino in Las Vegas would have such rules.”
Just a typical day in Las Vegas, sunny and hot with a chance of weird. As Human Resource Director for the Royal Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, this wasn’t even one of my more bizarre disciplinary interviews. Tag lines like “Sin City” and “Everything that Happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” very effectively convinced potential employees as well as customers that anything was acceptable in Vegas. After eight years on the job, I’d barely managed to convince the supervisory staff that they have to abide by the law.
With over 1600 employees, I don’t do all the disciplinary interviews. Normally my Labor Relations Manager would be sitting here instead of me, but it was after six and I was the only one still in the office when Alan called.
After several more minutes of argument, the supervisor led the resigned looking Mr. Pinos out of my office. He was even more disappointed when Alan refused to allow him to take the evidence with him.
During the conversation, I’d been trying to figure out the purpose of one of the contraptions. After they left, I held it up, carefully touching only the plastic wrap, and twisted it first one way and then the other. I was married once a while back, so not particularly naïve, but I’d never come across anything like it. Turning to Alan I said, “I give up. What is this?”
Standing up and taking it out of my hand, he said, “Trust me, you’ll never have a use for it.” Since he said it with a grin and a wink, I wasn’t sure whether that was an offer or a statement of fact. There had always been chemistry between us. We flirted, but that’s as far as it went. Company policy strictly forbids any relationship between executives. That didn’t stop me from ogling his nice tight rear bending over my desk as he gathered up the rest of the toys.
Alan had sandy hair, blue eyes and at six foot was slightly taller than I was. Even in his suit, it was obvious he worked out regularly. When Alan stood up, I wrenched my eyes up to look at his face
“Hey Val, you want to go get some dinner,” he asked with a hint of a smile as if he knew where my eyes had been.
We’d eaten dinner together several times. It was usually less of a date, and more like two people who lived alone and couldn’t face cooking after a long day. Alan was always reluctant to talk about himself or his past. All I knew was that when the hotel recruited him from somewhere in the Midwest, his wife stayed behind to sell the house. After six months, instead of selling the house, she served him with divorce papers, winning total custody of their daughter. Inevitably, we ended up talking about work.
I wasn’t in the mood. Stuffing my swollen feet back into the brand new pair of shoes lying under my desk, my only thought was bandaging the blisters on my heels. “Thanks, but I’m going home. If I don’t make it to the cleaners before they close, and do some laundry, I’ll have to show up tomorrow going commando in jeans and a t-shirt.”
He cocked his head to one side and leered. “I’d like to see that, but I doubt if it would make the right impression at the executive staff meeting, especially since the corporate executives are supposed to be there.”
“I thought that wasn’t until the 24th.” Checking my calendar I found tomorrow was the 24t.h. I even had it circled in red. Usually Charlene, my secretary, reminded me. I remembered she seemed preoccupied, but because I had been in meetings all day, she’d left before I could question her.
I grabbed my purse out of a drawer, stuffed in my cell phone and dug out my keys. Alan waited while I locked up and turned off the lights. He walked me as far as the elevator to the parking garage.
“You going home?” I asked.
“No, I’ve still got some work to do, and I need to stow these toys in the evidence locker.”
I said goodbye and rode down to the basement. At the end of the day, when I climb into the front seat of my blue Saturn, I’m always thankful that one of the perks of being an executive was a parking space in the garage. Evenings are still hot in Vegas. It may cool down to eighty degrees, but not until after midnight. In the summer after six in the evening, the temperature was usually still over ninety. The seat of a car sitting out in the sun can sear the skin right off the back of your legs and, until the air conditioning kicks in, the only way to hold the steering wheel was with your fingernails. My car wasn’t cool, but at least it was bearable. I cranked up the air, pulled out onto a side street that ran behind the hotel, and headed for the interstate.
The car cooled down by the time I reached the cleaners around the corner from my house. After buying back four suits, I drove home and pulled into my garage. A year after my promotion to director, I purchased this two-bedroom home in a quiet neighborhood close to downtown, but far enough away from the tourist corridors. It sat on a postage-size lot perfect for someone with no time for gardening. A small, covered, cement patio surrounded by desert plants took up the entire back yard. I treasured the fact that I owned a stand-alone house that didn’t share any walls with neighbors. If my neighbors fought or turned up their stereos, I couldn’t hear them. I lived alone, and I loved it. After talking to people all day long, the last thing I needed at night was company.
Kicking off my shoes, I hung the suits in the closet and stripped down to my underwear. Surveying myself in the mirror, I decided that at thirty, I didn’t look too bad. I’d always been thin. A tiny waist, a flat tummy, and natural blond hair I wore just skimming my shoulders. Offset small boobs and hips I considered too big. At five feet ten inches, my best features were my long legs. Throwing on shorts and a t-shirt, I picked up the phone that had been ringing since I opened the door.
“Don’t tell me you’re just getting home?”
“Yes.” Actually, this was early for me. I pulled a frozen dinner out of the freezer and shoved it in the microwave, while cradling the phone between my shoulder and ear.
“You work too hard. It’s no wonder you don’t have a social life.”
“I have a social life.”
“Really when’s the last time you went on a date?”
“Oh, that kind of social life.” The microwave dinged. I burned my fingers taking off the plastic wrap.
“I heard that. You’re nuking your dinner again. Instead of eating alone, you should be cooking Alan Harris a nice homemade meal.”
I sighed. “I’ve told you before. Alan and I are just friends.”
“What about that nice Mr. Jefferson I introduced you to last month?”
“Are you kidding? He was a least a foot shorter than me, and he had no neck.”
“At your age, you can’t afford to be so picky. He has a good job and he could afford to support you. You could quit that job, stay home, and have babies. Pretty soon, you’ll be too old to start a family. Everyone else my age already has two or three grandchildren.”
I loved my job and I wasn’t at all sure how I felt about having babies. I didn’t even like babysitting as a teenager. This wasn’t a new conversation, so I knew better than to mention any of that. I murmured appropriate remarks and waited until she ran down. Finally, she got to the reason she called.
“Eddie called and said he’s coming home this weekend. Can you come to dinner on Friday?”
Eddie was my brother, my only sibling. A perpetual student, he’d been in college for over five years only recently deciding on a major. I hadn’t seen him for at least six months. We didn’t have a lot in common since he was several years younger. Still he had a sunny personality and a great sense of humor. I enjoyed his company. I located my purse, dug out my cell phone, and entered the date promising to be there. I told her I was looking forward to it. It was true. My mom was a great cook and, with my brother there, she would have to divide her nagging time between us.
Hanging up, I took my dinner out on the patio. The moisture from the misters cooled the slight breeze. I listened to the crickets, and watched the humming birds fight over the bird feeder. When it got dark, I went back inside, threw a load of laundry in the washer, and turned on the TV to watch the news. I was just getting ready for bed when the phone rang. I answered it, knowing it was probably someone from the resort. It wasn’t unusual for me to get calls in the middle of the night. Rules are, before a supervisor can suspend or fire someone, they had to call and run the facts by me. It kept the supervisors from making decisions in anger that the resort had to pay for later. Usually I can handle it over the phone.
Not this time. Alan told me that the police were there and wanted me to come down. Since I lived across town, I told him to give me about thirty minutes. I changed into slacks and a blouse, slipping on a pair of flats instead of the killer heels.
Once before when a former employee committed a crime, the police wanted me to pull his personnel file to check the addresses of references or family where he might be hiding. Assuming this was similar, I didn’t worry until I saw crime scene tape across the door to the HR office as I drove by.
I parked in my usual space and took the elevator up to the first floor. A uniformed officer standing guard outside the office door stopped me. Before I could give him my name, I spotted Alan in the window waving at me. He came out, and led me inside.
He put his arm around me and led me through the foyer, past the counter and into the office area. All the lights were on. The other office doors stood open, but everyone congregated in front of my office.
“Why the crime scenes tape?” I asked.
“The police want to ask you a few questions.” He led me over to my secretary’s desk, just outside my office. A tall dark haired man in a suit leaned against her desk with his back to us talking to two security officers. Alan, keeping his arm around my shoulders, walked me over to introduce me. Tapping the man on the back he said, “Detective Delgado . . .”
When Detective Delgado turned around, my jaw dropped. I never expected to see anyone that good looking outside of an air brushed movie poster, dark hair, green eyes, muscular in all the right places, without an ounce of fat showing anywhere. He wore a custom tailored Armani suit with an air of smooth sophistication. Still something about the way he held himself hinted of danger. It gave him just enough of an edge to be believable as a cop. He focused glorious green eyes on me, igniting all my hormones. A wave of heat started somewhere in my middle and spread outward. He was at least six foot three because I had to look up at him. Masculinity poured off him like aftershave. I felt like a bloodhound that just caught the scent of raw steak.
Oblivious, Alan went on, “This is Valerie Peterson, that’s her office.”
I closed my mouth and tried to remember how to breathe. The detective stuck out his hand. Without conscious thought, my hand reached out to shake it. Unfortunately, I forgot how to let go and he had to pull his hand away.
When he looked away to introduce his partner, Brian Long, I pulled myself together. Detective Long looked like a detective, probably close to fifty, about my height, gray hair with a ruddy complexion and a potbelly hanging over his belt. He smiled and shook my hand. His blue gray eyes looked through you, reminding me of my father. Still holding my hand, he pulled me to the side so the men leading a covered gurney out of my office could get by.
Shocked I looked at Alan.
“My Monica?” Monica Smith, the Labor Relations Manager, had only worked for me for the last two months. When my old labor relations manager followed her Air Force husband to Germany, corporate asked me to take Monica. She worked at another property in St. Louis and needed to move to Las Vegas for personal reasons. When I interviewed her, she seemed well qualified with a clean record. I admit I had a hard time not letting her looks intimidate me. Monica had a fabulous figure, the kind every woman dreams of, tiny waist and hips, and large breasts. Combined with long blond hair and enormous blue eyes, it was hard not to hate her. However, being the self-assured, confident woman I am, I hired her anyway. Okay, I couldn‘t think of any good reason to deny her the transfer. Now Monica was dead.
Alan leaned in and whispered, “She was murdered here.”
“Murdered? Here?” I knew I sounded like an echo, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around the words. When the gurney passed, I looked through the open door and saw blood on the carpet. It dawned on me then, when he said here, he meant my office. I must have blanched because suddenly Alan shoved a chair under me, and someone else offered me water. When Detective Long offered me a tissue, I realized there were tears running down my face. Surprised, I took the tissue and mopped my face. I’m not generally a crier.
Detective Delgado stayed leaned up against the desk, looking down at me. I met his gaze and asked, “How?”
He ignored my question. His partner took out a notebook and a pen. Assuming they wanted Monica’s personal information in order to notify her next of kin, I stood and turned toward my office.
Detective Delgado stopped me. “Where are you going?” he said gruffly.
“To my office to pull Monica’s file. I keep all the HR employee files in my office. Isn’t that why you called me here?”
“You can’t go in there. Your office is now a crime scene.” He sounded slightly annoyed as if dealing with someone who wasn’t very bright.
Feeling stupid, I said, “Oh, of course,” and changed direction to walk around him to access Charlene’s computer. “Well, I can look up her address on the computer but it won’t tell me her next of kin.”
Frowning, he put his hand out to stop me, motioning for me to sit back down. “What time did you leave tonight?”
I remained standing. “About six. Chief Harris watched me lock up and walked me to the elevator.” Assuming that Alan had already told him this, I looked over at Alan. He’d moved away to stand against the wall. Arms folded and looking down, he didn’t say anything. I looked around for a trashcan to deposit the tissue Detective Long had given me, now a wadded up mess in my hand.
Detective Delgado pulled the can out from under Charlene’s desk. “Did you come back to the office for any reason?”
I dropped in the tissue. “Not until now.”
“What did you do when you left here?”
“I went home.”
“What time did you arrive at home?”
“About seven fifteen.”
He looked at his notes. “You live at 2346 E. Oakley?”
“Yes.” I wondered why he had my address written down.
The crease between his eyes reappeared. “Why did it take you over an hour to get home?”
“I stopped off at the cleaners.” I was starting to get pissed. Why were my movements important? Surely, he didn’t think I killed her.
Very slowly, punctuating every word, as if speaking to a child he said, “I need you to answer my questions in detail, please. What did you do when you got home?”
Angry now, I placed one hand on my hip and looked up at him. “I parked my car in the garage, walked to the bedroom, hung up my suits, and took off my clothes. I left my bra and panties on, in case you need to know that. I put on white shorts and a blue t-shirt, and then talked to my mother on the phone. I can give you her number because I’m sure you’ll want to verify the time. I took a frozen dinner from the refrigerator, walked to the microwave and when the timer beeped, I sat on the patio to eat it. Do you want to know what I ate for dinner?”
His lip curved up on one side as if stifling a smile. “Not at the moment. Can anyone other than your mother verify what time you got home?”
“Why? Do you think she would lie about it?” When he didn’t answer, I sighed and went on. “Not unless one my neighbors looked out their window. I live alone.” I finally sat down with my arms folded in my lap, scowling at him.
“Do you have any idea why Ms. Smith was here tonight?”
I relaxed a little. I’d expected these questions. “No. You would have to look at her calendar.”
“Did she often have a reason to come back after hours?”
“Yes, if she was conducting an investigation into an employee complaint or pending discipline, and needed to talk to someone who worked a later shift.”
“Would she do that in your office?”
“No. Normally she would speak to them somewhere near their work station.”
“Can you think of any reason why she would be in your office?”
“No.” I frowned. Now that he mentioned it, I realized how strange that was. “She shouldn’t have been able to get in my office. I keep it locked and she didn’t have a key. Only security, Charlene Larsen, who is my secretary, and I have keys.”
Two guys came out of my office stripping off rubber gloves. “We’re through for now. It’s all yours.”
Detective Delgado said, “Thanks. Ms. Peterson, I’d like you to take a look and see if you can tell if anything’s missing.”
A wave of odor assailed me as I walked in the door. Although I’d never smelled death before, this was more than just the smell of blood, coppery yet rancid, and something else I chose not to identify. My stomach roiled. Trying not to breathe, I concentrated on details to keep the queasiness under control.
The contents of my inbox and glass from broken picture frames lay strewn in front of the desk. One of the chairs that usually sat against the wall had been overturned on top of the mess. The other was shoved in the corner. A large puddle of blood congealed on the carpet. Blood and what looked to me like brain matter spattered the top and side of my computer, as well as the wall behind it. I couldn’t help picturing how she must have fallen and hit her head on the edge of the desk. I quickly looked away, and resisted the urge to vomit by sucking air through my teeth.
My chair sat against the back wall. The middle desk drawer with pencils and pens stood open, but the deeper side drawers remained locked. I handed my keys to a gloved police officer, who unlocked the right hand drawer.
“I don’t see anything missing. All the files looked to be undisturbed. That’s her file.” I pointed to the one with Monica’s name on it. When the police officer took it from the drawer and gave it to Delgado, I bolted from the office, leaping over the puddle of blood. Leaning against Charlene’s desk, several deep breaths failed to clear the smell or settle my stomach.
Detective Long who followed me out asked, “Are you all right?”
“Would you print out a list of the names and addresses of all the HR staff for me?”
Since they already had my address, he was probably just giving me something to do. Still, I was grateful for the distraction.
Detective Delgado came out and said, “You can go, but I don’t want you talking to anyone about this.”
“What about my staff? I’ll need to notify them.”
“No. I want to interview them as they come to work. I’d rather they didn’t know until then.”
Alan said, “I’ve arranged for an area in security for the police interviews and I notified Tony.”
Tony Augustino was our General Manage and our boss. It didn’t surprise me that Tony wasn’t there. While he insisted on being kept informed, he trusted his executives to be able to do their jobs while he did his. He would be on the phone notifying corporate we’d had a murder. Fortunately, the HR office was located as far away from any guest areas as possible. Even if the guests had noticed the cop cars, they may not have realized it had happened on hotel property.
It was almost two a.m. when Alan walked me out to the elevator once again. Alone together for the first time, I asked him the questions the detective refused to answer. “When did this happen?”
“Security called me at ten saying they found Monica lying on the floor of your office when they let in the night cleaners. The door to your office was open and the lights were on. I got here before the police arrived. It looked to me like she fell, hitting her head on the side of your desk. Those were the only injuries that I could see from the doorway. However, once the coroner examined her, I heard him tell the detectives that from the force of the blow, it couldn’t have been an accident. Someone pushed her.”
I drove home and crawled into bed for a few hours of sleep, hoping I wouldn’t have nightmares. They weren’t nightmares exactly, just vague images of blood dripping.