“Don’t touch that horn again.”
“Fine, fine.” He turned to Dana. “Geez, she’s a little pissy in the morning, huh?”
I gave him the evil eye.
Two hours later we’d stopped at Dana’s for a change of clothes, and at Starbucks for a grande mocha latte that Dana insisted I needed after I threatened to castrate Marco if he played one more Madonna CD.
I sipped in silence as we drove through La Puente and Ontario, finally merging onto the 15 north as we left the city behind us for Joshua trees, sagebrush and the occasional trailer park. We stopped in Barstow for lunch and I felt only minimally guilty watching Dana eat her fat-free protein bar and fruit smoothie as I wolfed down a Big Mac and fries. And a chocolate shake. And two apple pies. But everyone knows that traveling calories don’t count, right?
As we were merging back onto the freeway I was settling nicely into my fast-food coma when I caught a flash of blue behind a semitrailer to our right. I whipped my head around, that weird tingling sensation breaking out on my neck again. I could swear I saw the dented front bumper of a Dodge Neon disappear behind the truck as we merged into the fast lane.
“Did you see that?” I asked.
“What?” Dana craned her neck.
“A blue Neon. Back there.”
“No.” Dana shook her head. “Why?”
I bit my lip. I had a sinking suspicion I was becoming paranoid. “Nothing.”
Marco peered at me in the rearview mirror. “You okay?” he asked.
“Fine. Dandy. Just peachy,” I lied. I peeked behind me again. Just in time to see the Neon dart out from behind the semi, exiting the freeway at a rest stop on the right.
I stifled a gasp.
Things had just officially been upgraded from coincidence to creepy.
I spent the rest of the trip glancing over my shoulder every three minutes to check for my stalker. No further sign of him. But the tingling sensation on the back of my neck stayed with me all the way up the 15, right into Las Vegas.
“Welcome to Sin City, girls!” Marco said, fairly bouncing out of his seat with giddiness as we exited the freeway onto Las Vegas Boulevard. We crawled past the Excalibur castle and Luxor pyramid, almost crashing into the white limo in front of us when Marco spotted the New York, New York skyline.
“Ohmigod, ohmigod, there she is, Lady Liberty herself,” he cried, clutching his hands to his heart.
“Honey, you do know that’s not the real Statue of Liberty, right?” Dana asked.
But Marco ignored her, his eyes glazing over as we took a left on Tropicana and pulled up to the front. “Oh, look! The Brooklyn Bridge, New York harbor! It’s just like I always imagined it.”
Dana and I did a synchronized eye roll.
Marco handed his keys over to the valet in a red uniform and Dana and I grabbed our carry-on-sized bags. Marco reached into the backseat and pulled out a huge, leopard-print suitcase big enough to hold a small child.
“How much did you pack?” I asked.
Marco blinked at me. “Honey, this is just my overnight bag.” He popped the trunk to reveal three more matching leopard-print pieces of luggage.
Mental forehead smack.
Eventually (after Marco huffed and puffed his luggage onto a rolling cart) we made our way through the lobby. The air was thick with dinging slot machines, cigarette smoke and the occasional holler of “jackpot!” There were no windows in the casino, and it could have been two in the afternoon or two in the morning for all I could tell. The place was packed with an assortment of people ranging from tourists in T-shirts that read “I heart the Hoover Dam” to women in slinky (bordering on slutty) cocktail dresses and heels. It was like entering another dimension where time, space and tasteful attire did not exist.
The art deco registration counter stood at our left, and after walking through the roped off lines of baggage-toting gamblers, we were met by a tall, slim guy with bad acne and a name tag that read JIM.
“Welcome to New York,” Slim Jim said as we approached. Talking to Dana’s boobs.
“Ohmigod, did you hear that? His accent is even New York,” Marco whispered to me, bouncing up and down on his toes. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was Jersey.
“Maddie Springer,” I said. “I have a reservation.” I slid my credit card along the counter to Jim. He took it, giving it a cursory glance before returning to his staring match with Dana’s chest.
Luckily Dana was too busy salivating over the video poker machines to notice.
Slim Jim did a few clicks on his keyboard. “Yes, I have you down for a nonsmoking double, checking out on Wednesday.”
I nodded. I hoped that three days was enough time to track Larry down and help with whatever kind of trouble had him leaving gunshots on my answering machine. “We’d like to add a second room, too, please,” I said, glancing at Marco and his matching luggage set.
“All right,” Slim Jim said. More clicking. “We have one Marquis suite available on the fifteenth floor.”
“Perfect!” Marco clapped his hands together.
Slim Jim smiled. “First time in New York?”
“Don’t encourage him,” I pleaded.
“Okay, the Marquis will be four hundred ninety-five dollars a night.”
Marco stopped bouncing.
“Excuse me?” I choked out.
“Sorry,” Slim Jim said, shrugging his bony shoulders. “It’s all we have. Bette Midler’s performing in the Cabaret Theater this week. We always fill our, uh…” He paused, leaning in close to do a pseudo whisper thing, “…low-rent rooms when Bette’s in town.”
“Ohmigod, ohmigod!” Marco grabbed my arm, his painted black fingernails digging into me. “Bette Milder is here? I think I’m going to faint. Catch me.”
Neither Dana nor I moved.
“I could order a rollaway for your room if you like,” Jim offered.
While the idea of sharing a room with the divine Mizz M himself wasn’t exactly in my plans, unless I suddenly hit the mega-bucks jackpot it was all we could afford. “Fine. We’ll take the rollaway.”
“Okay, here you are. Room 1205, up the Chrysler elevators at the back of the casino and to your right. Enjoy your visit and,” he said, clearly addressing Dana’s cleavage, “please let me know if there’s anything else I can do to make your stay more enjoyable.”
I grabbed the keys and Dana and I hightailed it up to our room before Slim Jim stared a hole through her shirt. Marco trailed behind, stopping to stare at a “street performer” playing “New York State of Mind” on his tenor sax.
Once we’d huffed our luggage the entire length of the casino (dotted with fake trees, fountains and twinkling lights to look like Central Park), we rode the elevators up to our room and drew straws for the rollaway. Dana lost, grabbing the shortest swizzle stick from the mini bar. She started unpacking while Marco went to the “little girl’s room” to freshen up. I called home to check my messages on the off chance Larry might have called again. No such luck.
The first message was from Mom. She was glad I had let the Larry thing go and hoped I was having a fun time in Palm Springs. I felt just the teeny tiniest prick of Catholic guilt niggling at me. Especially since part of me (the part that hadn’t seen any action in so long Scott Baio looked good) kind of wished I were on a getaway with Ramirez. I mean, he did come running at the first indication I might need his help. And as much as I hated to admit it, that kiss had been kind of nice. Okay, fine. It had been really nice. Nice enough that I was starting to fantasize about a Palm Springs vacation for real. Me, Ramirez, sunny blue skies, a sparkling swimming pool, him in tiny little swimming trunks. Or better yet, no trunks at all…
Before my wandering libido could get to the good part of that fantasy, my machine clicked over to the next message.
“Maddie? Where the hell are you?”
Mr. Tiny Trunks himself. Ramirez. And he didn’t sound too happy.