I have a love/hate relationship with Las Vegas. Mostly hate. The swarms of obnoxious, often drunk tourists; the gaudy, tasteless casinos; the hookers who seem to be everywhere, the scammers and con artists; the millions of lights that never go out; the countless security cameras; I despise them all. Mostly the security cameras. In my line of work, you get caught on camera, you’re as good as done. But as much as I hate all that, I love the money even more. Not the money I make on the gambling floors – and I do tend to make quite a bundle at the poker tables – but the money I get from my clients. At fifty thousand dollars a job, I’m not cheap, but I’m worth every penny.
The inside of the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino only hardens my feelings towards Sin City. The whole gambling floor is done up in purple and yellow neon lights, like the set from a bad 80’s science fiction movie. Or an acid trip, I can’t decide. The dealers only make the experience worse: they’re all wearing what the casino describes as “chic lingerie.” More “whore” than “chic,” if you ask me. There’s no class to be had anywhere in this place, or in this entire city, for that matter. Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong damn decade.
My client is waiting for me on the Mezzanine, sitting on a sofa away from the crowds and the big-name attractions just like we agreed. I spot her right away. Not like she was easy to miss, mind you: she was a tall, statuesque blond, the kind of beauty that women would kill to have and men would kill to have in their beds. Like most women in her profession (if you can call it that) she has the best hair, face, and body that money can buy. She has a name, of course, but everyone who knows her knows her as “Miss California.” She gives me an angry glare as I slide onto the couch next to her.
“This seat’s taken,” she snaps.
“Looks free to me,” I reply.
“I’m expecting someone.”
“Yeah, me too.” She blinks in surprise.
“You were expecting someone else?”
“Yes, ah, I mean no,” she stammers, “I ah… just thought you’d be… older.”
“Yeah, I get that a lot.” I’m only a few years older than her. “So what’s the deal?”
“I… well, you already know that I have a problem.”
“Uh-huh. Who, exactly?”
“One of the other girls.” Yeah, I’d expected as much.
“Miss New York, right?” They’d had a huge fight the month before and hadn’t spoken since. It’d been all over the entertainment “news” thanks to the pageant’s stupid behind-the-scenes “reality” TV show.
“No, actually it’s Miss Oklahoma.” I blink, unable to hide my surprise. I had definitely not seen this coming.
“Okay… why her?”
“She’s going to win.”
“You’re sure?” She nods. “How?”
“Every bookie in town has her as the favorite.” I raise my eyebrows.
“Every single one?” She can tell I’m skeptical.
“I’ve checked every single casino in the city and as many underground houses as my coaches and I could find. Every single one of them has the odds in her favor. They can’t agree on where any of the rest of us are going to place, but they all have her pegged as the winner!” I let out a low whistle.
“Damn. That is something.” When every single outfit in Vegas picks the same favorite, that usually means said favorite is a sure bet. “So where do they place you?”
“First runner up,” she replies. Her eyes are moist. I think she’s gonna start crying.
“And that’s not good enough.”
“Hell no!” she shouts. I wince, glancing around to see if anyone heard. Some heads turn our way. Shit.
“Keep your voice down!” I hiss, “You trying to attract attention? You wanna get us busted?”
“I’m sorry,” she whimpers,” It’s just that…” Her face suddenly becomes hard as stone. “I’ve dedicated my life to this. I have been training for this pageant since I was three years old. Three years old. I’ve been coached, and groomed, and tuned up… do you have any idea how much my family paid for this?” she gestures at her face, then trails her hands down, indicating her entire body. Given the fact that her parents were both Hollywood superstars, I imagine that her present figure had cost them plenty. “I’ve spent my whole life preparing for that crown, and I am not going to let some upstart hillbilly farmer’s daughter bitch take it from me!” Her words are cold, clipped, angry. No tears now, no whimpering, just ice-cold range.
“Okay,” I say. She ignores me.
“I won my first pageant when I was three. Do you know how old she was when she entered her first pageant?” She doesn’t give me a chance to respond. “Last year! She entered the Miss Tulsa State Fair Pageant on a dare. And by some miracle, she managed to win. Then, with no training, no grooming, no enhancement, she somehow won Miss Oklahoma!”
“And now she’s going to steal your crown.” She nods.
“And I won’t let that happen.”
“Okay. You want it done before or after the pageant?”
“Before. It has to be before. She can’t win.”
“That’s gonna be tough,” I tell her, “Pageant’s in two days.”
“I know, but it shouldn’t be that hard.”
“These things take time if you want it done clean, especially with all the damn cameras in this town.”
“I don’t care. You have to do this before the pageant.”
“Okay, fine, I can do that. You want me to make her disappear too?” That question catches her off guard.
“You want me to leave the body or hide it?”
“Okay, disappearing act’s no problem.”
“No, I mean I don’t want there to be a body. At all.” Now it’s my turn to be confused.
“What’s that supposed to mean? There’s gonna be a body. That’s how this kinda think works.”
“No, I mean I don’t want you to kill her.” I do my best to hide my surprise.
“I want her ruined, not killed.”
“Unable to compete.”
“So… you want me to… what? Break her legs or something. You should’ve called a mafia thug –”
“Unable to compete permanently, I mean. I want you to destroy her face. Is that a problem?”
“No, no problem,” I assure her, “Just not the kind of job I usually get.”
“If you can’t do it, I can always –”
“I said it’s not my usual sort of work,” I snap, “Never said I couldn’t do it.” She frowns, the lines marring her four-thousand-dollar face.
“Don’t you talk to me like that!”
“How do you want it done?” I ignore her spoiled attitude.
“I don’t care. Cut her up. Throw acid in her face. Burn her with a waffle iron. I don’t give a damn, just make sure she’ll never be able to enter another pageant again. Oh, and don’t hurt her eyes.”
“I want her to see me win. Can you manage that?”
“That depends.” The frown deepens.
“Can you pay?”
“Of course,” she scoffs.
“Good. I’ll need a down payment.”
“Not a problem.” She pulls a small manila envelope out of her oversized handbag and hands it to me. “Half now, half when I know it’s done.”
“No problem.” I pocket the cask. Her perfect eyebrows raise skyward.
“You’re not going to count it?”
“You trust me already?”
“No, but if it’s not all there, you lose the cash and the crown, ‘cause I’ll walk away.” Her face darkens again.
“How dare you! Do you know who I am?” she demands. “Do you know who my father is?”
“Yes, and yes, and I don’t care. Because if you or Daddy even think about double-crossing me or coming after me, I’ll break into your Bel Air mansion and slit your throat, and you’ll never see me coming.” I’m not sure exactly what makes her go so deathly pale: my threat, the complete lack of emotion in my voice, or the look in my eye that tells her I’m deadly serious.
“N-no,” she stammers, “that won’t happen. I mean, if you don’t like the payment, that’s fine.”
“Good,” I reply, “I’ll contact you when it’s done.”
“Okay.” She reaches into her handbag. “Let me give you my –”
“No phones,” I tell her. “I’ll leave a message at the front desk. From a fan.”
“I get a lot of those.”
“How many send flowers?”
“Some of them.”
“Mine will have flowers.”
“How will I recognize it?”
“You’ll know. Trust me, you’ll know.”
“Good. So… that’s everything.”
“That’s everything.” I rise from the sofa and head back towards the casino floor.
It takes me eighteen hours to prepare for the job. First, I have to acquire Miss Oklahoma’s schedule. That costs me two thousand dollars in bribes, but it’s worth it. I get the itinerary for every single contestant from that morning up to and including the pageant itself.
Then I figure out when and where I can approach her. Hitting her in public is too risky since she’d always be surrounded by fans, security, and pageant staff. I’ll have to get her in the hotel room. That in itself is risky as hell, but it’s the only place I can be sure she’ll be alone. The pageant had sprung for a VIP suite for each of the girls. Nice of them, and it makes my life a hell of a lot easier. More space means less chance of anyone overhearing.
Once I figure out how exactly I was going to do this, I buy the supplies I’ll need. These turn out to be pretty cheap, enough that I can buy them without having to use part of Miss California’s down payment.
Finally, I have to get into her suite. This, surprisingly enough, doesn’t cost me a penny. All it takes is a sympathetic maid, a convincing cover story, and the proper ID. I give her a hundred bucks for her trouble anyway. Once the maid leaves, all I have left to do is wait. Wait and hope that I can pull this off without a hitch. This is new to me: usually I don’t get so nervous about jobs. Hell, I thought I’d stopped getting nervous a long time ago. But then again, I’ve never had a job quite like this one before. Way, way too much can go wrong.
The click of the suite’s door unlocking snaps me back to the present. I duck into the bathroom as the door swings open and Miss Oklahoma steps inside. She and her rival are a study in contrasts. For starters, she’s a brunette, not a bottle blond. Her eyes are blue, not green. Her face is rounder, softer, not hard and chiseled. And her body is 100% natural. No surgeries or hair dye to speak of.
She immediately heads for the bedroom, probably to catch a quick nap before her next engagement. I can’t blame her: according to her itinerary, she’s been bouncing from one publicity event to another for the last eight hours. Too bad: she isn’t going to be able to sleep for a long, long time after this.
I step out of the bathroom into the suite’s living room, my boots thumping on the hardwood floor. She whirls around in surprise. Her eyes become as wide as saucers when she sees me.
“What the hell are you doing here?” she blurts. Then she sees the long, wicked-looking knife in my hand, and her face becomes white as a ghost. “Oh my God.”
It takes me about an hour to finish the job. I could’ve done it faster, but I wanted to be extra careful. In my line of work, you absolutely cannot afford to make mistakes. For a job like this, that goes double.
Once I make sure she won’t be able to call for help, I clean up and head out of the hotel in search of a florist and a card shop. It only takes me a few minutes to find each. I buy a simple Congradulations card and a single rose: white petals with blood-red tips. I write instructions on when and where to meet on the card, seal the card in the envelope and tape it to the flower, then take the whole thing back to Planet Hollywood’s main desk. A hundred bucks ensures that the receptionist will get my delivery to Miss California as soon as physically possible.
The meeting place I’ve picked is a small, low-key restaurant a few blocks off the strip. No security cameras here, and not much in the way of crowds either. And the food, I soon find, is pretty good too.
I’d instructed her to meet me between 8:15 and 8:30, at the tail end of the dinner rush. I made it clear that if she didn’t show up within that window, I’d leave the restaurant, but would still collect the rest of the money. I don’t have to explain what that meant for her future as a beauty queen. It turns out that the implied threat was completely unnecessary: Miss California shows up at precisely 8:20.
“Sorry I’m late,” she blurts as she slid into the booth across from me, “some teenage brats wanted my autograph.”
“Not a problem,” I say, “you’re still in the window.”
“So it’s done?” She’s practically bursting with anticipation.
“Yeah, it’s – ” At that moment, a waiter appears and asks if we’re ready. I get an appetizer – baked mozerella sticks – and a beer. She orders a salad and – at my suggestion – a Diet Coke. “In celebration of your new title,” I say, “besides, it’s not like one diet soda means you won’t fit into your bikini.” She agrees, but I can tell she’s hesitant: she must watch every single calorie like a hawk. The waiter departs, and she glances nervously after him for a moment before turning back to me.
“So, it’s done? You… took care of it?”
“The crown’s as good as yours.”
“Show me,” she demands.
“Show me the cash.” She pulls another manila envelope from her handbag and unfolds the lip. Inside, I can see another wad of bills.
“You don’t get this until I know she’s been handled.”
“Have it your way,” I tell her, then reach inside my jacket. I get a feeling of smug satisfaction when she flinches and tenses up, only to relax when she sees that it’s a digital camera I’m pulling out of my pocket. I power up the little gadget, set it to display mode, then pass it over. Just she’s about to look at it, I spot the waiter returning with our drinks.
“Heads up,” I say quietly. She looks up and shoves the camera under the table in the nick of time. Once the waiter disappears, she retrieves the camera and starts examining the pictures. When I see the smug grin start to tug at her cheeks, I know she’s satisfied.
“You really did a number on her,” she says, “I don’t think any amount of surgery can fix that.” Miss Oklahoma’s face is covered in blood. Her eyes are squeezed shut and a sock is shoved in her mouth. Long, deep cuts destroy her once-flawless features.
“You said you wanted it permanent,” I reply with a shrug. She ignores me, continuing to cycle through the pictures. Her smile grows larger as she becomes totally engrossed in the gruesome sight. She’s oblivious to everything: the TVs over the bar, the music coming over the speakers, the baby screaming two booths over, and my hand as it flashes across the table. It’s only when I clear my throat that she snaps back to reality and hands the camera back. I power it down and replace it in my shirt pocket.
“The money?” I prompt.
“Oh, yes, of course,” she says as she passes over the envelope. I pocket that too.
“They haven’t found her yet,” she says.
“I know. She won’t be missed for another hour or so.” At that moment, the waiter returns with our food. I scarf down my mozzarella sticks and guzzle my beer. She looks on with barely veiled disgust as she picks at her salad and delicately sips her soda. Once I’m finished, I pull out my wallet and toss a few bills onto the table.
“This should cover my half,” I say, “Keep the change if there’s too much.”
“Wait,” she sputters, “You’re leaving?”
“Yeah, I’ve got tickets for Penn & Teller tonight.” She shoots me a disbelieving glare. “What? You think guys in my business don’t have lives outside of work?”
“I don’t care what you do outside of work,” she retorts.
“Well, whatever,” I say, then raise my bottle to her. “To your crown.” She raises her glass in response.
“To my victory.” I swig the last bit of beer while she takes a long sip of Diet Coke. We set our drinks down and I climb out of the booth.
“Thank you,” she says, “For everything.” I shrug.
“You hired me.”
I’m out the door a minute later.
Normally I skip town after a job, but this time I decide to stick around and see how everything plays out. Stupid, I know, but I want to see if the job was worth it. I want to see her get the crown.
It was tragic, really. In the pageant’s long and celebrated history, nothing like this had ever happened before. The story hit all the major news networks in a matter of minutes. The other girls were all heartbroken, many of them shocked beyond words. There’d been calls to cancel, or at least delay, the pageant out of respect for her, but the directors ultimately decided to host the pageant as scheduled. It was, after all, what she would have wanted.
“The third runner up is… Miss Iowa, Rachael Sheridan!”
I had to bribe an usher a hundred and fifty bucks to get into the casino’s massive auditorium, and I had to stand at the very back by the exits. Every seat in the place had been sold.
“The second runner up is… Miss Mississippi, Destiny Turner!”
From my vantage point, I can see on the screen above the stage that there are four girls left. One winner, one first runner up. I can feel the crowd’s excitement begin to tug at me, even though I’m certain of who will get the crown.
“The first runner up, and winner of a twenty-five-thousand dollar scholarship, is… Miss New York, Lana Kim!”
Three girls left. She’s still up there. My stomach ties itself into a knot. As the MC lets the tension build for a moment, I find myself reflecting on my actions over the last two days. Had I really done the right thing here? Had what I’d done really been worth it? The MC raises his microphone to his lips.
“And the winner… of a fifty-thousand scholarship… Miss America Two-Thousand-Eleven is…”
Yes, I decide. No matter what the judges decide, it was worth it.
“Miss Oklahoma, Catherine Turner!”
The crowd goes wild. Catherine falls to her knees, overcome with surprise and joy. Tears flow unchecked down her flawless cheeks. She unsteadily rises to her feet and throws her arms around her predecessor. She’s shaking uncontrollably as the sash is draped across her shoulders and the crown placed on her head. I can’t crush the smile that stretches from ear to ear as I duck out of the auditorium back onto the Mezzanine, tossing the empty tube of fake blood I’d been carrying in my pocket into a trash can as I reach the escalator.
“Who won?” some random guy asks me.
“Damn. Sorry, I’m from Pennsylvania.”
“Nah, it’s cool,” I assure him.
“Too bad about Miss California,” he says.
“Yeah.” I nod my head in agreement. “What was it that killed her? I’ve heard a couple different theories.”
“Way I understand it, she had an allergic reaction to something in her salad and her throat closed up. Suffocated to death right there in the restaurant.
“Damn. Shitty way to go.”
“And the night before the pageant, too.”
“Yeah, too damn bad.”
We both wander our separate ways: him for the gaming tables, me for the exits.
So that’s that. Catherine has her crown, and the last Miss California is in the morgue. Doctors are saying it was asphyxiation due to a laryngeal edema caused by an allergic reaction to something she ate. They’re right, sort of. The salad hadn’t triggered the reaction. That distinction belonged to the clear, tasteless chemical I’d squirted into her Diet Coke. The coroner would never find it unless he knew exactly what to look for, and there was no indication of foul play, so I’m in the clear.
As I reach the door, I glance over my shoulder at one of the giant TV screens mounted on the wall. It’s showing the pageant. The rest of the girls have mobbed around her, offering their congratulations. I idly wonder how many of them are being genuine. For her part, Catherine is still in shock, weeping uncontrollably and fanning herself with her hands. The smile spreads across my face again as I turn away from the monitor and head out the door.
“Live it up,” I whisper under my breath, “You earned it. Congratulations, little sister.”