(DECEMBER 1, 2002)
Caesar's Magical Empire had been constructed as an adjunct of Caesar's Palace dedicated to the practice and performance of classical prestidigitation. In plain English; magic. To add to the mental images of mystery evoked by that very term, the interior of the facility had even been designed to _resemble_ the underground catacombs of ancient Rome!
Or, at least, that had been the original intention six years ago. Now, that dream was over. But, as the trench-coated figure in sunglasses watched the construction company's wrecking ball begin the razing process, she vowed that the people responsible for shattering that dream would experience a nightmare of their own.
* * * * *
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
(SEVEN YEARS LATER)
James "Sonny Jim" Hodges was a professional celebrity impersonator who specialized in Billy Greenbush (a now-retired character actor whom he greatly resembled). And, during certain times of the year, he used that resemblance to great effect, shilling for various casinos in Vegas in the guise of a high-rolling East Texas oil tycoon a la J.R. Ewing! That, however, was mostly to supplement his regular income, which he derived from his work as a TV commercial spokesman for a local used car dealership in Manhattan Beach, California.
It was after videotaping one such commercial, two years earlier, that he had first been approached by Robert "Big Bob" Constable. The latter being an ex-cop, from New York City, who had semi-retired to the West Coast (after a twenty-five year career spanning both the Highway Patrol and the Auto Crimes Division) in order to work for his brother-in-law, the dealership's owner, as a repossession agent with the Accounts Receivable Department!
"Hey, Sonny Jim! How'd you like to make twice the money you're gonna get for this TV spot? Only, with all of it...tax-free?"
Hodges had grinned and replied (in a melodramatically exaggerated mock-whisper): "Who do I have to kill?"
"Absolutely nobody! It's just that I have a special assignment. A two-man repo job that requires the other guy to divert the deadbeat's attention away from me. So, what do you say?"
Hodges had paused to consider it.
"Every single penny."
So, Hodges had agreed. Although, not learning (till literally the last second) that what Big Bob had deliberately neglected to mention is that the debtor in question was a Bakersfield gunsmith!
One with a temperament almost as hair-triggered as some of his firearms.
Still, the few near-misses he had been forced to endure on that assignment had not cancelled out the otherwise pleasant aspects of the adrenaline rush Hodges had experienced. Hence his decision, shortly afterward, to further supplement his income by becoming a private detective! And that, in turn, led to his recruiting a certain type of partner to back him up in case of similar situations in the future.
He recruited Mario "The Weasel" Ferretti.
The latter had served in the Persian Gulf War as a photographer's mate with a U.S. Navy SEAL team. Infiltrating those areas, targeted for an upcoming naval airstrike, in order to get ground-level reconnaissance photos of any anti-aircraft defenses. Then, following his honorable discharge, he had become a photojournalist in the employ of various high-fashion magazines. He had even married a swimsuit model! That is; till one day, while on-location in Honolulu to shoot a pin-up calendar, he went looking for his uncharacteristically tardy wife.
Only to find her in the arms of another woman.
To describe the ensuing divorce as "bitter" would be an understatement. All through the hearings, Mario had kept referring to the discovery of his wife's previously in-closet lesbianism as "defecting to the enemy!" Fortunately for him, though, his lawyer had proven good enough to persuade her lawyer to get his wife to reduce some of her more _outrageous_ demands.
Even so, Mario had been forced to become a tabloid paparazzo to pay off some of his legal bills. It helped, however, that he occasionally got to supplement his income by performing "spousal surveillance" for that self-same divorce lawyer. Namely, Philip Grogan of Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe.
The very one whose name now appeared on the caller-ID of Mario's cellphone.
"Hey, Phil! What's up?"
"Got some more leg work for you and Sonny."
"Really? On whose behalf? The husband's or the wife's?"
"Door Number Two. And get this; it's that magician couple. The Pendragons!"
"I better call Sonny, right away, then," replied Mario: "Sounds like this might get...tricky."
He grinned in utter shamelessness at the groan that came over the phone.