Okapis and mandrills peeked out from amid the thick brush all around her, and an African leopard stood not ten feet away. The inanimate figures stared back at her with unseeing eyes, but Freya was almost happy here.
It was quiet; peaceful.
She breathed in the scent of the forest, fresh from a summer’s shower, and she closed her eyes, imagining that she was standing there now, not cloistered inside in the African Rainforest exhibit of the Las Vegas Natural History Museum. Her lunch break would be over in less than five minutes and the illusion would be broken.
But not yet.
She tried to remember when she’d become so fond of the outdoors. Was it a recent attraction? Or had she always loved to submerse herself in nature? Since no answer was forthcoming, she dismissed the subject and spun around in a slow circle, taking in her surroundings. The museum really had done a superb job with the exhibit; diverse wildlife and realistic trees and shrubs. Visitors could even experience the awesome power of a rainforest thunderstorm at the press of a button.
“Freya!” a shrill voice called from somewhere outside the exhibit, and she sighed heavily. The voice could only belong to Anita Darcy—her boss—and the tone meant the woman had a job for her, and she wanted it done now. Reluctantly, she left the room, pasting a pleasant smile on her face and speeding her step before Anita could call out again.
“I want you to collect the Roman cinerary urn from the Bellagio. Sonya Johansen arrived there this morning and will be expecting you at the penthouse suite within the hour.”
Sonya Johansen was an obscure figure from Oslo, Norway, whose family happened to be in possession of several European artifacts that dated as far back as the Neolithic era. The fact that she was having a representative from the museum show up at her hotel room to collect one such item meant the woman was likely filthy rich, accustomed to having people wait on her hand and foot. But since she was donating the artifact to the museum, Freya wasn’t going to kick up too much of a fuss. After a few minutes of fake smiles—and even faker small talk—she’d be out of there.
Fifteen minutes later, she pulled up in front of the Bellagio in the backseat of a cab. Freya had a car—at least, she had the keys to a car—but since there had been no vehicle in her parking spot outside her apartment, she had yet to figure out exactly where she’d left it. So, she relied on public transportation for the past three months, and while generally it was a pleasant means of getting around, the snarly woman in the front seat with garlic on her breath and body odor wafting from beneath her arms made her only too happy to consider getting around on foot from now on.
At the very least, she wasn’t taking the same cab back to the museum. So, she waved the woman off, and proceeded up the walk to the hotel, breathing in deep gulps of the moderately cleaner air of Las Vegas. As much as she hated to dwell on it, the vile smell in the cab tickled her memory, though she couldn’t quite call up any particular image to the forefront of her mind. Something from a long time ago…was that perhaps how her grandmother had smelled? No, that didn’t feel right.
Dismissing the conundrum as just another blank space in a long list of forgotten memories, she set her mind to the task at hand and proceeded inside the grand building. Somehow, she knew exactly where the elevators were located, and she rode the marble and glass car to the top floor. Stepping out, it was a short walk down the hall to the penthouse suite. She started to knock on the door, but it was open a crack and the tap against the wood forced it open further.
“Hello? Mrs. Johansen? I’m Freya Cullen from the Natural History Museum. I believe you were expecting me,” she called through the crack.
No answer. She knocked again and listened for any telltale sign of occupants inside. Was that the quiet shuffle of feet she heard? But if it was, the owner of those feet wasn’t coming any closer.
She’d braved the vile confines of the cab and was not about to walk away empty-handed because the woman couldn’t be bothered to answer the door. She pushed the door open slowly, calling out once again as she did, but still there was no reply. She glanced around, taking in the opulence of the enormous suite and couldn’t help but wonder just how much a night in this kind of place would cost. It was beautiful, but she pushed the thought aside. Unless she’d happened to forget about a pot of gold she had stashed somewhere, a penthouse suite at the Bellagio wasn’t in her future.
She walked through the suite toward the faint noise that was coming from down a long hall beyond the main living area, but something shimmering in the middle of the floor caught her attention. The sun reflected off it, casting brilliant, rainbow prisms against the wall, and she bent down for a closer inspection.
It was a medallion, but it wasn’t the crystal-like gem that drew her closer, but rather the intricate carvings on the gold casing that held it. The carvings were old, dating back several millennia, at least. And someone had carelessly tossed the precious item on the floor.
Something definitely wasn’t right here. She picked up the medallion, oddly uncomfortable with the idea of leaving such a valuable artifact lying on the floor, and then continued forward as a prickle of apprehension shivered down her spine. Sure enough, as she came to the bedroom at the end of the hall, she froze: a woman laid on the king-size bed, her eyes staring lifelessly at the ceiling. Dark crimson splatters marred her immaculate jacket and skirt and speckled her porcelain skin, and as Freya’s breath caught in her throat at the realization of what she’d found, a flash of black slipped out the glass balcony door.
Sonya had been murdered, and Freya had just walked in on the assailant making his escape. She should have screamed, called for help, or ran as far away from the room as she could, but instead, she crept forward slowly, inching toward the window, listening for the assailant’s footfalls on the balcony floor.
She peered outside, but there was no one there. Had she imagined it? No, she’d seen a man dressed in black and he’d escaped out onto the balcony; she was sure of it.
She hurried out of the room, down the hall and across the suite to the door, frantically pressing the button to call the elevator over and over again until the door finally opened and she stepped inside. She was anxious; every minute that passed made it more likely the assailant would make a clean escape. The elevator seemed to move at a snail’s pace, taking its time making its way down to the lobby while she paced back and forth in the small space. When the door opened again, she darted out and rushed to the concierge desk across the lobby.
“You have to call the police,” she exclaimed in a loud whisper. She knew it wouldn’t be taken kindly if she drew attention to the horrendous scene, but she couldn’t minimize the gravity of the situation entirely. “A woman’s been murdered; she’s in the penthouse suite, and whoever killed her escaped out onto the balcony not two minutes ago.”
The man at the desk looked at her for a brief moment as if it was taking him time to interpret what she’d said. “Um, are you sure, Miss?” he asked finally.
“Of course, I’m sure!”
He picked up the phone on the desk and mumbled quickly. A security guard appeared seconds later, and for a moment, she thought the concierge had called him to escort her out.
“Please go take a look in penthouse suite, Mr. Taylor. This young woman is concerned that something tragic has taken place there.”
Did he think this was some practical joke? She certainly wasn’t laughing. She glared at the concierge, but he continued to stand there looking unperturbed, and when a couple came up behind her, looking like they were dripping with money, she knew pursuing the issue was pointless.
The security guard nodded and headed back toward the elevator, and she followed him. He’d see she wasn’t lying, and then she’d call the police from the suite, which is apparently what she should have done in the first place.
By the time they arrived at the top floor, she’d regained some semblance of composure, and she strode out in front of the guard, who had spent the entire ride up looking at her with a mix of disbelief and sexual interest. Obviously, he was more concerned with her breasts than anything in the penthouse suite. Hopefully, that was because he didn’t believe her, and not because he was really that unconcerned with human life.
She pushed open the door to the suite, but immediately a niggle of suspicion set in. She’d left the door wide open when she’d dashed out, but it hadn’t been open more than a crack just then. Brushing it off, she headed straight through the suite to the bedroom, but came to an abrupt halt when she stepped inside.
The room was empty.
The bed was spotless, its plush duvet without a wrinkle and devoid of a single blemish.
But she was certain of the gruesome sight she came upon; there was no way she’d imagined it. Was there?
“There doesn’t seem to be any sign of trouble, Miss. Are you sure we’re in the right suite?”
“Yes,” she replied in a paper-thin voice. “Yes, I’m sure.” The woman had been lying right there, and the balcony door had been wide open. It was closed now, but the woman couldn’t possibly have gotten up and walked out there on her own. Still, she couldn’t help but look outside, searching for anything that could explain what was going on.
“I suppose I’ve made a mistake,” she confessed, albeit reluctantly. No doubt, he would think she was a complete whack job now. And since she spent a great deal of time feeling like she was teetering on the brink of insanity lately, she didn’t relish the idea of anyone else looking at her that way.
“It was probably just a prank, Miss,” he shrugged. “People have been known to do stupid things when they come to Las Vegas.”
“I’m sorry for wasting your time,” she apologized, feeling truly ridiculous now.
“It was no trouble,” he said, and the heat in his gaze blazed hotter as his eyes moved back and forth between her body and the bed not five feet away.
“I’ll be going now,” she said abruptly, not relishing the idea of staying there with him a moment longer. “I’m sorry again for the trouble.” She left without a backward glance, hurrying through the suite and to the elevator in hopes of avoiding an uncomfortable ride down with the security guard.
Once she’d made it out of the hotel, she paused, looking far up at the balcony to the penthouse suite. Did I really just imagine that? she wondered, worried she perhaps hadn’t only lost her memory, but her grip on reality as well. As she clenched her fists against the rising wave of emotion, the rough edges of the medallion dug into the flesh of her palm.
A priceless artifact lying on the floor in an empty hotel suite? It was so improbable, in fact, that it suddenly seemed far more likely that someone had returned to the room in the brief time she’d been gone and covered up all evidence of the crime.
A chill ran down her spine as she remembered the mafia movie she’d watched a few weeks ago. Had she just waltzed right into the middle of an organized crime hit? She’d laugh at the ridiculousness of the thought, but it didn’t seem terribly funny at the moment. And glancing down at the medallion in her hand, it unfortunately wouldn’t surprise her in the slightest if there were a whole lot of wealthy people searching for this near-priceless item.
As she returned to the museum empty-handed—at least without the Roman cinerary urn she’d been sent to retrieve—she tried to figure out what she was going to tell Anita. Mentioning their kind benefactor had been slain but had then vanished into thin air wouldn’t go over very well, so she went with the least convoluted answer she could think of: Mrs. Johansen hadn’t been there when she arrived at the hotel. She wouldn’t bother telling Anita that she didn’t think Sonya Johansen would be making an appearance anytime soon.
“I suppose this is what happens when I’m foolish enough to entrust such an important task to an assistant curator,” was the only comment Anita made once Freya had conveyed her story.
Aside from a few uncomfortable moments with Anita, the rest of the day continued on without a hitch. She remembered the woman often, but the emotion she’d expected to accompany the memory never came. Why wasn’t she more distraught? It was almost as if she was well-acquainted with death, so much that the image of a woman lying bloody and lifeless didn’t faze her. But maybe she was still in shock, her mind still uncertain what emotion to feel in response to something so terrible.
After giving a tour of the museum to two summer youth groups—no doubt a punishment for her failure to retrieve the cinerary urn—she buried herself in mundane chores, tidying an upcoming exhibit, packing away the remnants of another, and sifting through a mountain of paperwork on all the items they’d received in the past month.
By the time she looked up from her work, the museum had closed for the day—not that it was an unusual occurrence. Most nights, she found herself staying late, keeping her mind busily engaged in work. It beat going home to an empty apartment—aside from her Himalayan cat—to drive herself crazy trying to string together pieces of her missing past. She was no closer to an answer now than she had been the morning she’d woken up devoid of her memory, but every minute she wasn’t busily engaged elsewhere, her mind returned to the same burning question.
No bumps or bruises—no injuries at all—and yet something must have happened to have taken away her life. She knew it was all still there, buried somewhere deep and hidden beneath some sort of dark shroud. She could walk by an exhibit in the museum and know the name of every item there, but she couldn’t remember when she’d learned about any one of them. She could cook elaborate meals, and she could move through the steps of a dozen different dances without making a single mistake. And her feet seemed to know the way to the grocery store, the pharmacy and even The Smith Center, but she couldn’t give directions if her life depended on it.
Eventually, though, there was no more work to be done, and even if there was, she wasn’t certain she could see straight in order to do it. So, she left the building through the rear entrance and hustled down the four blocks to her apartment. It was hot, and her skin was covered in a thin sheen of sweat by the time she opened her front door.
“Hello, Cat,” she greeted the Himalayan who rushed to the door and rubbed herself back and forth across her calf. Of course, the cat had a name, but since she couldn’t remember it, she’d taken to calling her “cat” for the time-being—at least until she could give her back her the name that belonged to her.
She glanced around the apartment as she crossed the small foyer to the kitchen-dining room combo. She’d wondered more times than she could count about the empty picture frames that hung on the foyer wall and sat on her bedside table, but like everything else, the answer was locked away.
Dismissing the umpteenth unanswered question, she dropped her purse on the counter and reached for last night’s leftover takeout from the fridge. Returning to the counter, she remembered the medallion that she’d slipped into her purse on the way out of the museum. She had absolutely no intention of keeping it—it wasn’t hers, after all—but what should she do with it?
Did it belong to the woman who had been murdered? Or had the woman ripped it from her assailant’s neck? Either was possible since it didn’t look particularly feminine or masculine. She pulled it out of her purse and laid it on the counter. Cat jumped up then and went right to it, sniffing it profusely, as if it were made of catnip.
“Well, I suppose you know a priceless artifact when you see one too, huh?” she said, stroking Cat’s fluffy head.
She was going to have to decide quickly what to do with the medallion; she didn’t want the mafia, the mob or any other criminal organization showing up at her door in search of it. At the same time, though, she worried what the museum would think if she presented it to them out of the blue, and since this type of artifact wasn’t really the museum’s strongpoint, they’d be stuck trying to find a buyer for it. And she had no control over who the buyer would be, which made her nervous about handing it over to a random stranger.
She looked at the medallion, its sparkling center and the intricately adorned gold setting that held it. She didn’t know why its home was so important, but inexplicably she knew that it was. She knew it could be devastating if she gave it away carelessly, and knowing that, she wished she could find the right person to entrust with its care.
With the takeout carton then empty—aside from a few choice pieces of chicken for Cat—she slid the meat into his bowl. Glancing around once more at the still-unfamiliar surroundings, she flicked off the kitchen light and crossed the living room to her bedroom on the other side.
It had been a long day, and she hoped desperately that her tense hours at work would let her slip soundlessly into sleep, but the moment her head hit the pillow, a question that had crossed her mind earlier struck her again and chased away any hope she’d had for a good night’s rest.
Why wasn’t I more distraught?
It was a disturbing inquiry, one that made her question what type of person she’d been. The woman lying covered in blood on the bed…the assailant fleeing out the window…she’d felt little more than surprise over what she’d stumbled upon.
What kind of life had she lived where the taking of a life did so little to stir her emotions?