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Donn Cortez is the pseudonym for Don DeBrandt, who has authored several novels. He lives in Vancouver, Canada.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
THE VIEW FROM the Panhandle Casino’s penthouse suite was impressive, but to truly appreciate it you had to use the rooftop pool; one wall was clear glass, letting the swimmer enjoy the glittering lights of Vegas twenty floors below while floating weightless in heated water. The suite’s owner, Andolph Dell, provided swimming goggles for his guests for this precise reason, and during one of his parties there was always at least one person contemplating the vista while holding their breath.
But not at this party—because on this particular Sunday night, there was a zeppelin.
A more accurate description was dirigible, for it was only twenty or so feet long and less than a third that in diameter. It was black, cigar-shaped, and piloted by a grinning clown wearing black coveralls.
No one was sure which direction the dirigible had come from, if it had risen from the ground or descended from the skies. It had simply appeared, circus music blaring tinnily from tiny speakers, floating at the penthouse level and circling slowly like a bird looking for a spot to land.
The clown wasn’t so much piloting the craft as riding it; a large propellor at the rear provided thrust, powered by the clown’s furiously pedaling legs. He gripped the handlebars tightly, leaning back in his seat, never pausing to wave at the crowd on the roof who were cheering him on, or even to glance at them—despite his wide, maniacal grin, he seemed to be a clown who took his zeppelin flying very seriously.
And then the zeppelin burst into flames.
The theme of the Panhandle Casino was the Gold Rush. There were plenty of pickaxes and gold pans on the walls, while women dressed as dancehall girls dealt blackjack and spun roulette wheels. But Andolph Dell had decided old mining equipment and a few corsets weren’t a big enough draw; these days, in order to compete, a place needed something unique.
Dell had gone with bears.
Specifically, he’d built a large, glass-walled environment in the middle of the casino floor. Sensitive to modern attitudes toward animal exploitation, he’d ensured that the environment was completely soundproofed and that the bears spent only a few hours a day on display, in a daily rotation shared among sixteen animals. The rest of the time they lived on a ranch outside the city, where they were cared for by an experienced professional staff. The animals themselves were all rescued specimens, obtained largely from zoos or circuses that could no longer take care of them; they lived a pampered life on the ranch, punctuated with brief interludes riding in the back of a specially designed tractor-trailer, followed by a few hours staring at hordes of goggle-eyed tourists while snarfing back treats.
A flaming dirigible crashing to earth in the parking lot was not on their usual agenda—and the event occurred at the worst possible time, during the bears’ transfer from truck to casino.
Jordan Tanner worked the midnight-to-eight-A.M. shift at the Panhandle as senior security officer. He had overseen hundreds of bear transfers and probably as many parties, and the bears had always provided much less trouble than the partiers. . . until now.
There were two other officers in the monitoring room with him, watching the sequence of events unfold. Kyra Bourne was to his left, Kevin Priest to his right. None of them could quite believe what they were seeing on the bank of screens in front of them.
“Oh my God,” Kyra said. She was a twenty-two-year-old from Alabama working her way through a criminal-law degree. “It just hit the ground. It’s still burning. No way he could have survived that.”
“Fire department’s on its way,” said Kevin. “What is this? Is this a terrorist attack?”
Tanner shook his head. “A guy in a clown outfit? That doesn’t—”
“The bears!” said Kevin. “The bears are loose in the casino!”
Security monitors showed two bears lumbering between slot machines as panicked tourists screamed and ran.
“How many?” Tanner demanded. “Where’s the third one—”
“There!” said Kyra. “It’s moving a lot faster than the other two—”
The third bear wasn’t lumbering. It was running. And someone was trying to outrun it.
“It’s chasing a guard!” said Tanner. “Who is that?”
“I don’t know, I can’t see his face—”
“Is it Hernandez? I think it’s Hernandez—”
A high-pitched bell started to ring. Someone had triggered the fire alarm, adding to the panic as guests scrambled for the exits. All of the elevators headed for the ground floor, where they shut down after disgorging their passengers. The penthouse had its own private elevator—but when the car arrived, it was empty.
“Oh, no,” said Tanner. “The alcove for the penthouse elevator. It’s got him cornered.”
“Tell him to shoot the damn thing!”
“I can’t raise him—wait, that’s not him—”
“He’s trying to open the elevator—why isn’t it opening?”
“It’s locked down and he’s too rattled to remember the security code,” said Tanner. He leaned forward and started tapping keys. “I’m opening it remotely—if he can get inside I can shut them and he’ll be safe—”
“No!” Kyra shouted. “It’s rushing him! It’s in the—”
Bright arterial blood sprayed the lens of the elevator’s camera. All they could see was red.
“What a mess,” said Nick Stokes, surveying the smoking wreckage. “Took out an SUV, a pickup, and two subcompacts.”
“If Grissom were here,” said Greg Sanders, “he’d probably say something like ‘Oh, the zoo-manity.’ ”
“Probably. But his would be better.”
Greg shrugged. “Hey, you try working in a pun involving a flaming zeppelin and three rampaging bears.” He paused. “Maybe I should have gone with the Goldilocks thing . . .”
“I’d prefer if you didn’t,” said Sara Sidle. “Blondes have to deal with enough jokes as it is.” She glanced from the parking lot to the entrance. “How are we doing this?”
“The bear’s handlers have recaptured the three escapees,” said Nick. “Two came right back, while they had to use a tranquilizer dart on the third. Crime scene’s been cleared, but it’s gonna be messy—I’d like both of you on it. I’ll take the Hindenburg out here.”
“Let’s do it,” said Greg.
He and Sara headed into the casino. It was deserted now, the entire building ringed with yellow crime-scene tape.
“Weird to see the place empty,” said Greg. “Kinda postapocalyptic.”
“Post-ursine-alyptic, you mean. Nothing clears a room like a four-hundred-pound carnivore times three.”
A large, frowning man with a shaved head and muscular arms crossed against a massive chest was waiting for them at the private elevator alcove.
“Jordan Tanner,” he said. “I’m in charge of security at this time of night.”
“CSIs Greg Sanders and Sara Sidle,” said Greg. “So this is where the attack took place?”
Tanner nodded. “It’s where it started, yeah. The guard was trapped against the doors, so I opened them remotely. The bear rushed him.”
Sara glanced at the keypad beside the elevator doors. “So the body’s inside?”
“I’m not sure.”
Greg frowned. “What do you mean, you’re not sure?”
“The elevator camera was. . . splashed. We can’t see what’s inside. It’s not on this floor, anyway—the car went down after the doors closed. He must have hit a button before . . .”
“So the elevator’s in the basement?” asked Sara. “Why aren’t we?”
“Regular staff elevator is still in lockdown. And as for the stairs—well, I’ll show you.”
Tanner led them around a corner to the fire stairs. The door there was propped open, while four firemen struggled to get a makeshift stretcher of chain-link fence through the doorway. Sprawled across the mesh was an unmoving mass of black fur, its long pink tongue lolling out of the side of its bloodstained muzzle.
A man with a short gray beard and a baseball cap that read “Bruin Rescue Ranch” was supervising. “Careful!” he snapped. “Don’t drop him! Keep his head supported!”
“That’s his handler,” said Tanner. “He’s the one who tranqued him. Nobody else has been down there since the staff bolted.”
“What’s down there?” asked Sara.
“Offices, mostly. When the bear came out of the elevator, it started wandering around. Staff elevator was frozen, so everybody ran for the fire exit and got out.”
The firemen finally succeeded in negotiating the unconscious animal out of the stairwell. They lugged it toward the exit, the handler barking orders every step of the way.
“Let’s see what we’ve got,” said Sara.
“There’s no body,” Doc Robbins said. He stood beside Nick, leaning on his arm crutch and gesturing with his other hand. “Either this guy walked away from the crash, or the fire vaporized him completely—which is impossible.”
“Not completely,” said Nick. He used a stick to lift a partially melted rubber clown mask. “See? Part of his face survived.”
“That’s great. Call me when you have something that isn’t made out of rubber—I’m going to examine the victim of the bear attack.” He headed toward the casino entrance.
The damage to the vehicles had mostly been done by fire; the dirigible hadn’t weighed enough to do serious harm through impact alone, and its twenty-story plummet had been slowed by the physics of the craft itself.
Nick got to work documenting the wreckage, dropping markers and taking pictures. He found no footprints—clown or otherwise—leading away from the crash, no blood trail or spatter. He did find bits of electronics, fragments of framework made mostly of balsawood, and a small electric motor. He bagged and tagged everything, then took samples of the ashes that remained.
Doc Robbins had joined Greg and Sara at the open elevator car on the basement level, where there was an abundance of blood—but no corpse.
“There’s no body?” Doc Robbins said. “Again? What happened to this one—did the bear eat him?”
“I’m no expert, but I don’t think bears do that,” said Sara. “I mean, there’s nothing here at all—no clothing, no shoes, not even a bone fragment. These bears are well fed, right? Even a starving grizzly in the wild wouldn’t lick his plate this clean.”
“Well, there’s no drag trail,” said Greg. “It didn’t haul him off somewhere to snack on later.”
“So where is he?” said Robbins.
Tanner walked up. “That’s not the only question. I don’t know who he is, either—none of my people are missing.”
Greg pointed at the floor, where bloody bear pawprints led from the foyer toward the offices. “We might not know where the guard is, but we know where the bear went.”
They followed the tracks away from the elevator. The bear had gone down the hallway to the very end, where it had apparently stopped in front of a large metal door.
“What’s in here?” asked Sara.
“It’s where they keep the alternate casino chips,” said Tanner. “State law says the casino has to have them on hand in case the ones in use are compromised.”
Greg tried the door. “It’s still locked, but we’re going to have to take a look inside.”
“I have the access code,” said Tanner. “Step back, please.” He blocked the keypad with his body and entered the code, opening the door.
Greg stepped in and looked around. Wheeled shelving units lined the walls, filled with clear plexiglass cases full of casino chips. “I don’t see any tracks.”
“Bears,” said Sara, “tend to be more interested in fish than chips.”
Greg grinned. “I see married life is already changing you.”
Sara gave him a look. She paced the room, studying each rack of chips. “It doesn’t look as if anything’s been disturbed, but the casino should do an inventory of these chips, see if anything’s missing.”
“I’ll make sure of it,” said Tanner. “But I don’t know why anyone would even want to steal these. They’re the new kind, with a radio-frequency ID chip embedded in each one. Until they’ve been activated, they’re about as valuable as a Starbucks gift card with no money on it.”
“Worthless money and a nonexistent guard,” said Sara. “What’s next?”
Greg shrugged. “Porridge that’s too hot or too cold?”
The bear tracks doubled back down the hall, where they entered the first office on the left. “The tracks go around the perimeter,” noted Sara. “Nobody else was attacked?”
“Not that I know of,” said Tanner.
Greg surveyed the room, which held half a dozen cubicles. “So it charges in here, runs around the outside of the room—giving everyone not only a good look at it but enough time to escape—then heads back out the door.”
Sara was already on to the next room. “Where it does exactly the same thing,” she said. “It’s like the bear was herding them.”
“Maybe it was raised by sheepdogs?” Greg suggested.
It was the same in every office. The bear’s wandering was methodical, ending just outside the door to the fire stairs where it had been shot with a tranquilizer dart.
“And still no guard,” said Sara.
Greg stood in the blood-splashed elevator, peering at the wall. “Lot of spatter in here, but look at this.” He pointed to the railing at waist height that ran around the periphery. “Is that a footprint?”
“Could be,” said Sara. She looked up. “People trying to escape bears sometimes climb trees—maybe the guard went up instead of out?”
“Exit hatch is closed,” said Greg. “Could be he used it, then put the cover back in place.”
Tanner nodded. “There should be a stepladder in the supply closet. I’ll be right back.”
One mile past the Vegas city limits, a man and a woman shamble out of the desert. The moon above them is a giant eye, staring at them with cold, unblinking hostility.
The woman’s throat has been cut, but the wound has long since stopped bleeding. It hasn’t healed; it’s run dry. Her eyes are empty and lifeless, her skin as white as hospital linen under the lunar glare.
The man is lean and muscular, his hair a black military bristle over a skull etched with scars. His right hand is bound in a kind of sling, the wrist lashed to the forearm with strips of torn cloth. The arm bears only a cursory resemblance to a human limb; it is covered with thick, overlapping scales of a deep orange, and it ends in a hand tipped with long, curving black claws. The hand twitches grotesquely as the man walks, flopping against his chest and waggling its long fingers like a spider on its back.
The many-hued lights of the city rise before them: flame-flickering reds, lurid alien greens, blues and whites arcing like lightning.
“Tired, Bannister,” the woman says. Her voice is a harsh croak. “So tired.”
“Soon, Theria,” he promises. “We’re almost there. You’ll be able to rest then.”
“Rest. Yes. Rest forever . . .”
They continue on, their footsteps slow but resolute. They don’t pause when they reach the sign at the outskirts; they already know exactly where they are and where they’re going.
They’re in hell.
© 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc.
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