Six months earlier, before being accused of forgery by an officer of one of America's biggest companies, Allie Bowen lay blissfully in the arms of Christian Sacco, the man she had been with since her separation from her husband . . . and, truth be told, a little before that as well. The shrill ring of the phone woke them both.
"Stay asleep," Allie whispered. "It's probably for me."
Even though Christian Sacco was the third most important executive within the casino hierarchy, it was Allie's job as Heaven's vice president of marketing and public relations that was more likely to generate a middle-of-the-night phone call.
"Allie Bowen," she said sleepily.
"It's Falanucci. We've got a Code Yellow. NBC news is already here."
"I'll be there in ten minutes," she said, reaching for her pants.
"What is it? What's happened?" asked Christian, as Allie dressed hurriedly.
"There's been a Code Yellow."
"A Code Yellow? A jumper?"
"It wasn't that bastard pianist in the cocktail lounge, was it?" asked Christian hopefully.
"I don't think so," said Allie, who smiled as she buttoned her blouse.
Allie bent down and gave Christian a soft kiss.
"See you at work, darling," she said.
Teasingly, from the Las Vegas Strip, a passerby can only vaguely discern the giant, blurry outline of Heaven's facade. The city's most impressive monument is deliberately hidden twenty-four hours a day behind an obscuring cumulous mountain of man-made fog.
The only way to see more clearly is to approach more closely. Every day tens of thousands make the decision to do just that by stepping onto the walkway that moves in only one direction. As the people-mover pierces the fog, first-time visitors invariably let out an audible gasp. Heads turn upward and mouths gape open in wonder. Visiting eyes follow the intricate, ornate carving of the front facade, full of trumpeting angels and Dale Chihuly-designed stained-glass windows, as it soars skyward.
Sammy Kirvin, Heaven's octogenarian primary stockholder, came up with the paradise theme himself. Ancient Rome, New York, England, Paris, and Egypt were already well represented on Las Vegas Boulevard. Sammy cursed the fact that all the good countries were gone. Holland had tulips and cumbersome shoes, but that was not enough on which to hang a multibillion-dollar hotel. Afghanistan had caves, which was tempting, but of questionable taste given the current state of geopolitics. Russia had been seriously considered. Sammy liked that one; if something went wrong, such as room service failing to show up, it could just be passed off as part of the theme. However, the more conservative members of his board had vetoed that suggestion.
Brainstorming session followed brainstorming session, until the night Sammy Kirvin experienced a thematic epiphany. In flowerier interviews, he liked to suggest that maybe God himself had chosen to imbue him with the idea. After all, God had always liked the desert. He'd set the Bible there.
Built over four years at a cost of three billion dollars, Heaven is quite simply and without reservation the most spectacular architectural achievement of the early twenty-first century. Stepping off the moving walkway, gawking visitors continue forward through St. Peter's Gates and into the interior where a team of St. Peters-actually, trained security guards with concealed Glocks beneath their wings-welcome each gambler with a flutter and a frisk.
Beyond the guards, the atrium ascends to a roof whose trompe l'oeil effect of absolute perspective makes it appear as though one is still outside and staring up into the cosmos. Wrapped around the circumference of the casino floor are 9,750 rooms, making Heaven the largest hotel in the world. It is also the most profitable.
Leaving her car in Heaven's executive parking lot, Allie bounded up the escalator directly into the lobby. The first thing she saw was the camera crew from the local NBC affiliate. Rikki Green, the ambitious reporter who caught the story, had cornered a blood-spattered hotel guest.
"What exactly did you see, Mr. Beechnut?" Rikki was purring, pointing her microphone toward Mr. Beechnut's unfortunately decorated face.
"I turned around just as the fat man exploded on the carpet."
"How did you feel?" Rikki pressed. "What were you thinking? Did you panic?"
"Panic? No, I didn't have time to panic. I just opened my mouth to scream and-"
Rikki interrupted, excitedly. "Did you swallow anything?"
"Oh my God, I don't know. I was covered in . . . whatever this is," he moaned, picking gelatinous bits from his jacket. "What if I swallowed something? What if my boy swallowed something?"
Rikki lowered her microphone down to little Augie Beechnut's mouth. "How old are you, dear?"
"Eight," the little boy replied.
"Can you tell me what you saw?"
"I saw his insides explode and everything," Augie enthused. "It completely rocked."
Allie was too far away to hear what was being said, but the triumphant look on Rikki Green's face was enough. At a dead run, Allie lunged at the microphone, pushing it to one side and positioning herself between the camera and the Beechnuts.
"Hello," she panted at the Beechnuts. "On behalf of everyone here at Heaven, I would like to extend our most sincere apologies. We're so sorry you had to witness this tragedy. If you'll just give me one minute, I'll help you get settled."
Though they looked rather stunned at the breathless intrusion, Mom, Dad, and Augie agreeably shuffled to one side. Allie turned to Rikki Green.
"Rikki," she said sweetly, "don't make a bad situation even worse. Think of that poor family and the family of the deceased."
"No can do, Allie. This is a big story," Rikki said. "Great visuals."
Allie swallowed hard. "Great visuals." This was not good.
"Please, Rikki," Allie cajoled. "I'll owe you big time. Christian has Cher coming into the arena at the end of the month. I'll get you front-row seats."
Rikki crooked an eyebrow. She knew the owner of her station was close friends with many members of Heaven's board of directors. One call to her employer and the story would in all probability be scotched anyway. At least this way she would get an up-close look at what was really going on with Cher's face.
"Fine," she said. "You owe me, Allie."
Allie hurried over to Jimmy Falanucci, the casino's director of security, who was busy coordinating the cleaning crew's operation.
"Where the hell are Richard and Frank?" she asked, referring to the president and vice president of Heaven respectively.
"On a plane coming back from some seminar bullshit in New York. Someone's trying to get hold of 'em."
"What do we know about the jumper?" Allie asked, eyeing the gruesome leftovers.
"Mr. Average from Ohio. We're helping the cops piece together his evening from the tapes. Started out betting ten bucks a hand and ended up a hundred thousand in the hole. Somehow got up to the top floor. Jumped. Burst."
"What about the family that got splattered?"
"The Beechnuts. From Illinois. Flew in tonight."
"OK, thanks, Jimmy," she said. Taking a deep breath, Allie made her way over to the Beechnuts.
"On behalf of everyone here at the casino," she said, using her most placating tone, "let me formally apologize for this unfortunate incident."
"Who are you?" asked a confused Mrs. Beechnut.
Allie proffered her card to each Beechnut. "Allie Bowen. I work here at Heaven. Let me begin by promising you that your entire visit to Heaven will be comped. I've had you upgraded to one of our luxury suites. If there's anything you need while you're here-absolutely anything-you just call me."
Placated by the promise of free shows and free food, the Beechnuts headed up to their room to shower off the remains of Mr. Average from Ohio. Some hours later Allie received a summons to Richard Summerford's office.
"You handled this incident very well, Allie," Summerford announced with a smile. "The Beechnuts have already signed a legal waiver exonerating us from any blame."
Allie blinked. Legal waiver? "Ummm," she said. "Great."
"I'm grateful, and I'll make sure the board knows what a good job you did. About time we had a few more women in upper management."
More women? thought Allie. How about just one?
"Thank you, Mr. Summerford," she said, then stood, smiled, and left, anxious to tell Christian about her success.
Magician Barry Houdini glanced at the watch his ex-wife had bought him for his thirtieth birthday from one of the jewelry stores in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. It said 1:45, but the watch had been running slow ever since he accidentally dropped it into a bowl of goldfish during a trick. Barry knew he should get it fixed, but it was easier to add a few extra minutes mentally, and Barry was an easygoing kind of guy. That was why his wife had fallen in love with him. It was also why she had left him.
Glancing again at the watch, Barry calculated that it was really one fiftyish. As the Barry Houdini afternoon show of mystical, magical illusion (includes one free watered-down drink) supposedly began at two but in reality never started until ten after, Barry figured he still had time to grab a beer at the bar.
Wait a second, he thought. This was Sunday, right? Wasn't he supposed to do something on Sunday? Yes. Yes, he was. Damn. He was supposed to turn his watch back an hour. So, he was actually an hour early for his show. He could have slept an extra sixty minutes. Damn, again.
The Pinwheel Casino was located in the downiest bit of downtown. Most of its clientele sported a variety of physical oddities: a mangled foot, a missing finger, a lazy eye. The attraction of downtown was its cheaper prices, lower minimum bets, and better odds. It had none of the bells and whistles of the Strip experience, but for the real Vegas aficionado that was its charm.
Finishing his beer, Barry headed toward the glorified lounge the Pinwheel described as its Broadway Theatre, home of the world's greatest afternoon magic show starring barry houdini. He noticed with surprise that the area where people usually milled and smoked was empty. Granted, the 102-seat theater was never packed, but it was never empty, either. Strange. Barry looked again at his watch. It was 3:10, which meant it was actually 2:05.
Through the ambient casino hum, Barry heard a familiar jingling approaching fast on his left. Kenny Hess, manager of the Broadway Theatre, was famous for the number of keys he sported on the left side of his jeans' belt loop. The keys forced Kenny to slope to one side, resulting in the exposure of a portion of hairy Kenny midriff in between T-shirt and jeans that was more of Kenny than anyone really wanted to see.
"Where the hell were you?" Kenny demanded.
"What do you mean, dude? I'm here."
"It's four ten," Kenny scolded. "Your lousy show was supposed to be at two o'clock."
Barry looked at his watch and shook his head. "It's two ten. You're watch is wrong."
Kenny sighed. "Barry, I don't believe this. Didn't you turn your watch ahead an hour last night?"
"Ahead? Wait a minute. It's spring, isn't it? 'Spring back, fall forward.'"
"No, you dummy. It's 'spring forward, fall back.'"
"Dude, you're wrong. I spring back and then I fall forward."
"No," an impatient Kenny insisted. "You're wrong. You're always wrong."
Barry pondered, and inwardly admitted there was a distinct possibility that Kenny was correct. "Man, I'm so sorry. It will not happen again."
"You're right it won't happen again. You're fired."
Barry recoiled. "Dude, that's cold. It was an honest mistake. Look, I'm turning my watch forward right now."
Barry removed his watch and began to twiddle it. "I'm springing forward. I'm even making it a little fast. See, four fifteen. Four twenty. I'll go to four twenty-two. I'll never be late again."
Kenny's tone became a little more conciliatory. Barry was a nice guy. "If things were really happening for you here, it would be a different story," he reasoned. "But you're only averaging fifty people an afternoon and most of them are comped. It's coming from the top. I've gotta get more bodies in here."
Barry had been fired before but, as in falling in love, each time is like the first.
"I'll get my birds now," he said dejectedly. "I'll get the rest of the magic boxes tomorrow. Will you tell Wanda?"
Barry didn't want to be the one to break it to the world's oldest magician's assistant that she was out of a job. She had a sick mother and a bad back. Barry had to intentionally slow down the "sticking the knives through the box" trick to give her time to bend down.
"Sure. I'll find her a job here somewhere . . . something behind the bar. It's time she got offstage. I can tell you now . . . there have been complaints. I've seen barstools with better legs." Kenny extended a conciliatory hand and then jangled away.
Back in his rented apartment, Barry sipped on a beer and stared morosely at the Jackson Three-Michael, Jermaine, and Tito-the now-unemployed avian costars of Barry's show. Originally, of course, there had been five birds and the Jackson reference had made a lot more sense. Tragically, two birds had died of heart attacks after being caught in Barry's sleeve during a trick. That had been a bad show. The Jackson Three were usually happy show birds. Now they huddled in a corner of their cage, their little parakeet heads hanging low as they blinked despondently in the direction of their bird-father.