The Reverend Marcus Mallabee had an unusual ambition. He wanted to open a Christian-themed casino in Las Vegas. That might be why he was murdered.
John Holiday, reporter turned author, has just finished interviewing Mallabee when the minister is shot by a sniper. Deeply shaken by the experience, Holiday soon finds that witnessing a murder is only the beginning of his troubles. In the space of a few days, an old acquaintance is killed, Holiday’s ex-wife is arrested for the crime, and Holiday himself becomes a target when he tries to discover what’s behind this string of disasters.
Holiday’s search for answers takes him from a Las Vegas billionaire’s penthouse to a cult leader’s church in the Utah desert. Trapped in a web of religion, sex, and money, Holiday knows that to survive he must find the spider who spun it.
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THE FIRST COPS on the scene had serious doubts about me. They wanted to know why I just happened to be at the Mallabees’ home when all the shooting started. I told them life was full of coincidences.
They didn’t like that answer, so I told them more. I went to the Mallabees’ home that night to interview the Reverend Marcus Mallabee, a popular TV evangelist. The previous Sunday, the Reverend had made an astonishing announcement to his congregation. His church, the Fellowship of True Apostles, was going to build a casino. And not just any casino. A casino with a Christian theme.
The story was picked up by the national press, but it was treated more as a joke than as a serious news item. Most newspaper editors probably wrote it off as another example of how strange life has become here in Las Vegas. I thought there was more to it than that. To me, Mallabee’s plan represented a new variation on an old theme: the complicated relationship between religion and money. For the first time in months I had something I wanted to write about.
Mallabee lived in Summerlin, a planned community on the western edge of the Las Vegas Valley. His home was a mind-boggling mix of architectural styles, with turrets, a fountain, and a three-car garage. It was getting dark when I arrived. As I approached the house, a half-dozen blinding security lights came on. I felt exposed and vulnerable, but I guess that was the whole idea.
The front door was answered by a teenage girl who might have been a poster child for disaffected youth. She had a ring in her nose, blue hair, and an expression that radiated boredom and disgust. She was dressed all in black, with a tight tank top that exposed several inches of her pale tummy. Long, baggy pants completely covered her feet.
“What do you want?” she said. Somehow she managed to make that simple question sound like an accusation. Or maybe an insult.
“My name is John Holiday,” I said. “I have an appointment to see Reverend Mallabee.”
“Wait here,” she said, and she closed the door in my face.
This was not a promising start. I must have stood there for two minutes, wondering whether to ring the bell again. Finally, the door opened. This time it was answered by an attractive woman in her late thirties. She had long, carefully styled blond hair, a flawless complexion, and a welcoming smile. Could this possibly be the girl’s mother?
“I’m sorry,” she said in a soft voice. “My daughter is terrible at some things. Are you Mr. Holiday?”
“Yes, I am. I have an appointment with Reverend Mallabee.”
“Of course,” she said. “Please come in.”
She stepped aside and I entered a large foyer with a dark hardwood floor, a cathedral ceiling, and a large crystal chandelier. The place seemed less like a home than a collection of architectural clichés.
“My husband is expecting you,” she said. “I’m Evangeline Mallabee.” She offered me her hand. She was wearing an expensive-looking blue dress and a subtle perfume that reminded me of my ex-wife. There was a trace of a Southern accent in her voice.
“You have a beautiful home,” I said. Her smile faded just a bit. Maybe she thought I was making fun of her.
“Thank you,” she said. “My husband is in his study.”
She led the way through rooms stuffed with dark, bulky furniture. In the rear of the house we came to a heavy oak door with a brass knocker. A brass knocker on an inside door? Maybe it was a decorating trend I wasn’t aware of. She knocked twice and a voice on the other side of the door said, “Come.”
She opened the door. Mallabee was sitting behind a polished wooden desk as big as a queen-size bed. He stood when we came in the room.
“Marcus,” his wife said, “this is Mr. Holiday.”
He came out from behind his desk and walked briskly toward us, his hand extended. He was a big man, six foot two I would guess. He weighed at least two fifty, but he carried the weight well. He had a full head of silver hair and freshly shaved pink cheeks. For some reason, he reminded me of a walrus. Maybe it was the way he waddled a bit when he walked.
“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Holiday,” he said. “I just finished reading your book.”
“So you’re the one who bought it,” I said.
He didn’t get it at first but then he broke into a laugh that was much more enthusiastic than my stupid little joke deserved.
“Please excuse me,” Evangeline Mallabee said. “I have to check on Charity.” She left the room and closed the door behind her.
“Did you meet my stepdaughter?” Mallabee said.
“Yes, I did. She answered the door when I arrived.”
“I pray for that child every day. I am afraid she has fallen under the spell of some of the darker forces in our culture.”
“She’ll grow out of it,” I said.
“I sincerely hope so. But hope is fruitless without the gardener’s hand.”
“Of course,” I said. I had no idea what he meant.
“Let’s sit over here by the windows.”
He led me to a long leather sofa that faced a large sliding glass door. We sat and looked out at a kidney-shaped swimming pool. Lights mounted on the house made the surface of the water sparkle like sequins on a showgirl’s costume. A row of bottlebrush trees ran along the far side of the pool, offering some measure of privacy.
It was a comfortable evening in early June, with temperatures in the seventies, but the sliding glass door was closed to keep in the air conditioning. Like many people in Las Vegas, Mallabee seemed unwilling to allow the natural world to penetrate his personal space.
“I assume you wanted to talk to me about my plans for Heaven,” Mallabee said.
Now I was really confused. “Your plans for heaven?”
It took him a moment to understand the reason for my confusion. When he did, he let out a booming laugh so warm and genuine that it made me smile. His fleshy cheeks turned red and his eyes filled with tears.
When he stopped laughing, he said, “Heaven is one of the names we were considering for the casino.”
“My business manager thinks some people might consider it sacrilegious, so we probably won’t use it. He thinks we should call it The Heavenly City.”
“That’s a catchy name,” I said. “Would you mind if I record our conversation?” Lately I’ve been using a digital recorder small enough to fit in my coat pocket. It’s so inconspicuous that the people I interview sometimes seem to forget they’re being recorded.
“I don’t mind at all,” he said. “Go right ahead.”
I placed the recorder on the sofa next to me and turned it on. “I’m sure you’ve been asked this before,” I said, “but don’t you think gambling is basically incompatible with the values of your church?”
He nodded as if he was giving my question some serious thought. I was sure he had already prepared a carefully worded statement on the subject.
“Gambling is not a vice in and of itself, Mr. Holiday. As you know, churches have used gambling as a fundraiser for many years. Think of all the bingo games in church halls. The raffles. The events that some churches call ‘Las Vegas Nights.’ We’re just taking that same concept a little further.”
“But gambling can destroy lives.”
“That’s true, but all of the pleasures God has given us can lead to destruction if we do not use them wisely.”
I had to give it to the guy. He was well prepared. And his answers made sense, as long as you didn’t think about them too much.
“You must know,” I said, “that there is a certain element of sex involved in all the casinos here in Las Vegas. The costumes, the entertainment, the whole idea of checking your inhibitions at the door.”
“I am aware of that, but I do not think it is an essential part of the gambling experience. Our female employees will wear costumes that are attractive but not provocative. And there will be no nudity or suggestive behavior in our shows. On the contrary, our entertainment will have Christian themes. Possibly re-enactments of scenes from the Bible.”
I almost lost it there, but I knew if I burst out laughing the interview would be over. I rubbed my chin, as if thinking about my next question. When I thought I could keep a straight face, I said, “What about the money? What will you do with the profits from the casino?”
He started to speak when something outside caught his attention. His stepdaughter Charity was standing on the far side of the pool, facing us. She had traded her black widow outfit for a long white robe. With a flourish, she threw off the robe. She stood on the edge of the pool, wearing the tiniest swimsuit imaginable. Then she gave us a mock salute and jumped in.
Mallabee sprang up from the sofa and took a couple of steps toward the sliding glass door. Before he reached it, the glass shattered and a lamp behind me exploded.
“Get down!” I shouted. I leapt off the sofa and pulled him to the floor.
This time we heard the shot. It sounded like a firecracker. The bullet sailed over our heads and thudded into the sofa, a few inches from where I had been sitting.
Another, louder shot came from a different direction, possibly the house next door. Then another. Then silence. I raised my head a few inches and looked out through the shattered glass door. There was no sign of Charity. I crawled to the door and pushed what was left of it open. No one shot at me.
I crawled out the door, staying low. A man ran over from the house next door, carrying the biggest shotgun I have ever seen. He was wearing baggy shorts, a white knit shirt, and a Panama hat.
“Are you all right?” he said. “I think I scared him off.”
I scanned the pool for Charity. She was standing in shadows in the shallow end of the pool. It was difficult to tell in the dark, but she didn’t appear frightened or even surprised by what had happened.
I walked around the pool, peering into the shadows for some sign of the gunman. I picked up the robe Charity had thrown off and took it to her. She was climbing out of the pool now, looking stunned. I gave her the robe and she put it on without saying a word. I was worried she might be in shock.
“You should go in the house and get dressed,” I said. “Put on something warm.”
She said nothing. Her complete lack of emotion was making me uneasy. Her mother came out of the house and rushed toward us.
“Charity, are you all right?” she shouted.
“I’m fine, Mother,” Charity said. “What happened?”
“I don’t know. Come inside.”
Evangeline Mallabee put her arm around her daughter and led her back into the house. I followed them as far as the shattered glass door, where Mallabee and his neighbor were having an animated discussion about what had happened.
“I didn’t get a good look at him,” the neighbor said. “He was wearing dark clothes and a ski mask.” The neighbor was a short, round man, his face flush with the thrill of the hunt. With his round belly and enormous shotgun, he looked like Elmer Fudd.
“Has someone called the police?” I said.
“I’m sure my wife has called them by now,” the neighbor said.
“How were you able to get to your gun so quickly?” I said.
The man looked offended, as if I had questioned his right to shoot up his neighbor’s backyard.
“This is John Holiday,” Mallabee said. “We were having a discussion in my study when the shooting started.”
The man offered me a sweaty pink hand. Apparently any guest of Mallabee’s was worthy of his trust.
“Al Burnett,” he said. “Pleased to meet you. Well, I was sitting out on my deck smoking a cigar. My wife doesn’t like me to smoke in the house. And it just so happens I keep a shotgun in a hidden compartment out there.”
“I keep a gun in my desk drawer,” Mallabee said. “Just in case.”
I was about to ask him, just in case of what? But at that moment we heard sirens approaching and Mallabee said, “We should meet them out front. This could turn out to be a long night for all of us.”
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