One-Eyed Royals (Seven of Spades, #4)
Spoiler Alert! The following blurb contains spoilers for Cash Plays, book three of Seven of Spades.
If they don't play their cards right, they'll end up losing everything
Shattered by their devastating breakup, Detective Levi Abrams and PI Dominic Russo find themselves at war right when they need each other most. While Dominic is trapped in a vicious cycle of addiction, Levi despairs of ever catching the Seven of Spades. The ruthless vigilante’s body count continues to climb, and it’s all Levi can do to keep up with the carnage.
When Levi’s and Dominic’s paths keep crossing in the investigation of a kidnapping ring with a taste for mutilation, it feels like history repeating itself. Thrown together by fate once again, they reluctantly join forces in their hunt for the mastermind behind the abductions.
But the Seven of Spades hates sharing the spotlight, and they have an ace in the hole: a new batch of victims with a special connection to Levi. Their murders send shockwaves through Las Vegas and change the rules of the game forever.
The Seven of Spades has upped the ante. If Levi and Dominic don’t play their cards right, they’ll end up losing everything.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:explicit violence
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Heat Wave: 4 - On-screen and mildly explicit love scenes
Erotic Frequency: 3 - Moderate
Genre: mystery, romance, suspense / thriller
Pairing: male/male, multiple partners
Tone: dark, exciting, gritty, intense, realistic
Themes: abduction/kidnapping/hostage (actual), abuse, acceptance, addiction, angst, atonement, duty, enemies to lovers, gambling addiction, illness / injury, interracial/multicultural, isolation, pining / UST, police brutality, protection, recovery, reunion, self-discovery / self-reflection, stalking / harassment, trust issues, workplace romance
Kinks: 69ing, barebacking, bondage, hate-sex/angry sex, rimming / anilingus, size
Settings: America, casino, city, Las Vegas, Nevada, police station
Careers: bartender, bounty hunter, law enforcement, private investigator
Dominic groaned as sirens split the air and flickering red and blue lights filled his rearview mirror. He kept driving for a few seconds, hoping the cop would pass him, but no such luck.
He pulled his pickup truck over to the side of the road and glanced at the dashboard clock. Goddamn it, he was going to be late. Again.
The cop who approached his car was a young white woman whose blonde hair was braided beneath her cap. Dominic adjusted his jacket to better hide the shape of his shoulder holster—he had a concealed carry permit, but there was no point in taking risks around cops. Then he put his hands back on the wheel and gave her the most disarming smile he could muster, which was no easy feat these days.
“Is there a problem, Officer?” He knew for a fact he hadn’t been speeding.
“Your right taillight is broken, sir.”
Dominic’s hands tightened on the wheel so hard it creaked beneath his grip. The cop noticed and raised her eyebrows.
“I’m aware of that,” he said, struggling to keep his voice even. “This is the third time I’ve been pulled over for that light in the past five days.”
“Then you should probably get it fixed.”
“I will. It’s just that money is a little tight right now.”
She gave him an unimpressed look. “Money’s going to be tighter if someone rear-ends you because they can’t see you’re hitting your brakes.”
“Is a broken taillight really the best use of your time?” he said despite his better judgment. “How about the serial killer that’s been stalking the city for almost a year? Or the neo-Nazis running wild around the Valley?”
He nodded to the building nearest them. The symbol of Utopia—a white supremacist group swiftly escalating in scope from street gang to outright homegrown militia—was graffitied in stark black paint on the wall.
The cop turned her face aside, and he could see he’d hit a nerve. As he studied her in profile, he realized something else.
“We’ve met before,” he said, taken aback. “You’re that rookie cop Levi Abrams liked—Kelly Marin, right? The one who got busted for leaking the Seven of Spades story to the Review-Journal last April?”
She blinked, retreating a step. He seized on her moment of hesitation.
“Levi put you up to this, didn’t he? He asked you to harass me.”
“The LVMPD doesn’t harass civilians, sir,” she said stiffly.
Dominic snorted. “So it’s just a coincidence that I’ve gotten more tickets and warnings from cops in the three months and change since Levi and I broke up than I’d gotten in my entire life? One of your buddies gave me a ticket for jaywalking last month, in the middle of a crowd of people doing the exact same thing. You can’t expect me to believe Levi didn’t put out some kind of covert BOLO, asking you all to keep your eyes peeled for me and my truck and find any possible reason to hassle me.”
Kelly didn’t answer, but he didn’t need her to. When their relationship had gone down in flames in November, Levi had promised to make Dominic’s life a living hell—and he’d been living up to that promise. Not only was Dominic hounded by cops every time he turned around, he was pretty sure it was Levi who’d broken his taillight. He’d left his apartment one morning to find the light deliberately smashed, and no further damage to his truck or the other cars in the lot.
“Look, are you gonna give me a ticket or not?” Dominic asked. “I’m running late for a work meeting.”
The truth was, he would have been late even if Kelly hadn’t pulled him over. But that was Levi’s fault too. Since their breakup, the bastard had been steadily blackballing Dominic from every casino one by one. When Dominic had resorted to not-so-legal venues, each operation had been mysteriously raided by the LVMPD the very next day.
In a matter of weeks, Dominic had found himself persona non grata at almost every gambling establishment in and around Las Vegas. The only place Levi’s influence didn’t extend was the Railroad Pass in Henderson, a half-hour drive from the Strip. So unless Dominic was content with gambling online—which just wasn’t the same—he had to haul his ass all the way out there, and he always underestimated traffic driving back into the city.
“I’ll let you off with a warning this time,” said Kelly. “Make sure you get that taillight fixed.”
Dominic turned the key in the ignition. He knew Levi believed he was doing the right thing. This wasn’t like the other times Dominic’s gambling had gotten out of control, though. He’d learned from his past mistakes; he had a handle on the gambling now. It wasn’t a problem, but Levi was too bullheaded to accept that.
“By the way,” he said to Kelly as she backed away from the truck, “you might want to remind Detective Abrams that he left his phone charger at my place when I fucked him last Saturday.”
Dominic slid smoothly back into traffic, leaving her gaping behind him.
* * * * * * *
“This is a new low for us,” Levi said as he took in the Seven of Spades’s latest crime scene.
“It doesn’t reflect well on building security, that’s for sure,” said Martine.
They were standing in the chambers of District Court Judge Cameron Harding, who had been murdered in the city’s Regional Justice Center—a building full of people, cameras, and armed guards—in the middle of the afternoon, with nobody noticing anything amiss until hours later.
Like the vast majority of the Seven of Spades’s now twenty-two victims, Harding had been drugged into paralysis before his throat was slit from behind. A half-empty coffee cup on his desk was the most likely source of the killer’s drug of choice, ketamine, though they’d have to test it to confirm.
Harding himself was seated at his desk, but it was the objects on the surface that caught and held Levi’s attention. Two statuettes of Lady Justice, sword in one hand and scales in the other, had been set up on either side, angled to face Harding. Little craft eyes had been glued over their blindfolds so it looked like they were staring at him.
At the top edge of the desk was a bronzed model of the scales of justice, with a seven of spades card carefully balanced on each scale. Finally, a sheet of paper sat in the center of the desk, right in front of Harding, with one of his bloody hands resting on top of it. Levi could tell from the displacement of the blood around Harding’s chest and neck that the killer had pressed Harding’s hand to his own throat wound before laying it atop the paper.
When Levi and Martine stood side by side, he had to look down to meet her eyes—she was a petite woman, though her commanding presence effortlessly filled a room. “You know anything about this guy?”
Steering clear of the crime scene photographer, Levi circled the desk with his gloved hands in his pockets. The CSIs were still working the room and the coroner investigator hadn’t arrived yet, so it was even more important that he not disturb anything.
By leaning over Harding’s shoulder, Levi was just able to make out the words at the top of the blood-stained piece of paper beneath the man’s hand.
“It’s the oath of office Clark County district judges take,” he said to Martine.
She snorted. “The Seven of Spades is so extra.”
He shot her a bewildered look.
“That’s Mikayla’s assessment,” she said, referring to one of her teenage daughters.
Mikayla wasn’t wrong. The Seven of Spades styled themselves a vigilante, targeting only betrayers of trust—people who had committed some form of treachery and gotten away with it. The killer took particular delight in staging the scenes to emphasize the victims’ guilt.
The setting and details of Harding’s murder sent a clear message. Levi just didn’t know how Harding had violated his oath as a judge; he’d never met the man and wasn’t familiar with his career.
Martine came around the other side of the desk, studying Harding’s body. “At least the killer is still sticking with their usual MO. No signs of struggle or violence.”
Levi nodded. The Seven of Spades—who was quickly racking up one of the most prolific, uninterrupted strings of serial murders in modern history—had a distinct killing style. They were able to appear trustworthy enough to incapacitate their victims with drugged beverages without raising any alarms, then administered a single passionless knife stroke to the throat.
The Seven of Spades had only broken from that MO three times. They had once hired a sniper to kill a man on the steps of this very building, in retaliation for that man trying to frame them for his wife’s murder. On another occasion, they had slaughtered five human traffickers at the same time, then flown into a rage and mutilated the bodies postmortem. And once—only once—they had killed a single victim without bothering to take him unawares, instead subduing him with a stun gun and a forceful injection of ketamine.
Afterward, the Seven of Spades had confessed to Levi that they’d enjoyed using such active violence, and there had been concern for a while that the killer would become more aggressive. But each of the murders since then had been faithful to the original MO. The only thing that varied was the elaborate staging.
Levi turned to the responding officer, who was hovering a few feet away. “This building is covered in cameras. How did the killer manage to slip in and out without drawing any attention?”
“The head of security already looked into that,” the officer said. “The building’s entire system was hacked and put on a sophisticated loop that nobody noticed. They haven’t even been able to fix it yet—they had to call in specialists.”
“Carmen,” Martine muttered.
Levi closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Not long after their debut, the Seven of Spades had cultivated a mole in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department—Carmen Rivera, a brilliant young technical specialist. She’d been arrested a few months ago when Levi and Martine had discovered her betrayal, but she’d escaped within days thanks to the street gang Los Avispones, another ally of the Seven of Spades. Wherever she was now, her assistance continued to provide the killer access and information they wouldn’t have been able to obtain on their own.
“Okay, we need to—”
“Levi Abrams!” snapped an ice-cold voice.
He winced before he even turned around.
Deputy District Attorney Leila Rashid was standing on the other side of the crime scene tape strung across the office doorway, her arms crossed. As always, her black hair was pulled into a fuss-free ponytail, and her simple pantsuit flattered the hard, lean lines of her athletic body. She crooked her index finger at him, gesturing for him to come over.
Despite his irritation at being summoned like a dog, Levi walked up to the tape. Martine accompanied him, a curious look on her face.
“Did you maybe forget to do something today?” Leila said, laying the sarcasm on so thick it would’ve crushed a lesser man’s spirit.
“For God’s sake, Leila, a city judge has been murdered—”
“Cameron Harding?” She peered past him at the body, then waved a dismissive hand, apparently unfazed by the grisly scene. “Everyone hated that douchebag; his sentencing was blatantly racist. I’m only surprised the Seven of Spades didn’t get to him sooner.” Pointing a finger at Levi, she said, “You were supposed to be in my office half an hour ago for trial prep.”
He opened his mouth, but she barreled on without giving him a chance to speak.
“Jason Wilson’s new defense attorney is a total slimeball. You cannot go into that cross-examination unprepared, especially with your anger-management problems.”
“Jason Wilson?” Martine said, while Levi bristled all over. “Isn’t he one of the Utopia gangbangers who was arrested for the assault on Sergei Volkov’s underground casino? I thought those trials were supposed to start a couple weeks ago.”
“Don’t even get me started,” said Leila. “All the Utopia assholes we have in jail or on bond keep getting their trials postponed because their legal teams are in constant flux, and the court schedule’s a mess. Their attorneys keep quitting.”
Martine hummed thoughtfully. “I think I read something about that. They’ve been getting death threats, right?”
“Yeah. Even worse, as far as lawyers are concerned, big-ticket clients have been threatening to pull out of their firms if they represent Nazis.”
“You’re a lawyer,” Levi said.
“I’m a prosecutor. There’s a difference. And don’t try to change the subject.” Leila stepped closer to the tape. “You didn’t even call to tell me you weren’t showing up, nor did you answer any of my calls or texts, which meant I had to waste time tracking you down.”
Levi suppressed a cringe. That had been shitty of him, though he had an explanation. “I know, I’m sorry. My phone died hours ago. I lost my charger and haven’t had time to buy a new one.”
If it had only been Leila, that might’ve worked. But Martine knew him too well. She was his partner, his best friend, a sister far superior to his biological one, and she wasn’t so easily fooled.
She narrowed her eyes. “You don’t lose things. Which means you know where your charger is but you can’t get it for some reason . . .” Her eyes went wide. “Oh my God, you left it at Dominic’s apartment!”
“You’re the worst,” said Levi.
“You slept with him again?” Leila said, loudly enough to catch the attention of the uniformed officer standing guard at the doorway.
Levi glowered at the man until he hastily backed out of earshot. “I didn’t plan on it! It just happened. We ran into each other at the grocery store—”
“You don’t live anywhere near each other—”
“And one thing led to another,” he continued, steadfastly ignoring that comment. “I thought . . . Well, it doesn’t matter what I thought. I was wrong.”
This wasn’t the first time he’d found himself in this predicament. He and Dominic would cross paths—and all right, sometimes it was because he’d engineered the circumstances and sometimes because Dominic had. They’d start talking, and if they made it through the first five minutes without fighting, things would start feeling normal again. Dominic would seem like the same charming, thoughtful, easygoing man Levi had fallen in love with, Levi would believe there was hope for their relationship after all, and they’d end up in bed.
Then, inevitably, something would happen to smack Levi in the face with the harsh truth—Dominic was a compulsive gambler in a full-blown relapse, refusing any and all offers of help. That hadn’t changed, and until it did, they couldn’t be together in any meaningful way.
“You know,” Martine said, “when a couple breaks up, they usually stop having sex with each other.”
“What the hell do you know about it?” Levi retorted. Martine had only been in one relationship her entire life. She and her husband, Antoine, had been childhood sweethearts who’d grown up in the same Flatbush neighborhood of Haitian immigrant families, and they’d gotten married during college.
“Hey, don’t take your angst out on her,” Leila said. “She’s not the one who keeps jumping on Russo’s dick.”
Martine made an exasperated noise. “It makes sense that you and Dominic are drawn to each other. You’re still in love; breaking up didn’t change that. But this is not a healthy way to deal with your separation.”
“And this is not the time or the place to have this discussion.” Levi gestured to the corpse fifteen feet away. “A city official was murdered in a government building in broad daylight. The mayor is going to have a nuclear meltdown.”
“Like things weren’t already bad enough,” Martine said glumly.
Tourism in Las Vegas had plummeted ever since the Seven of Spades had become a nationwide phenomenon, even though they’d never actually killed a tourist. Utopia’s explosive growth had only made matters worse, and the combined pressures had ignited a political firestorm in which the mayor, the city council, and the sheriff were more interested in slinging blame at each other than solving the problems.
Martine and Leila fell into a debate about damage control, and Levi breathed a quiet sigh of relief. As far as he was concerned, there was no right time or place to discuss his relationship with Dominic. He could barely stand thinking about it.
Dominic was his bashert, his soul mate. Without him, Levi felt like he’d been gut-shot and it was taking months to bleed out.
“Detective Abrams?” one of the CSIs said as she approached him from behind. “There’s something you should look at over here.”
He and Martine followed her across the office. Leila, who hadn’t signed into the scene, stayed behind the tape.
“This seemed out of place, so we took a closer look. And . . . well, you’ll see.” The CSI gestured to a greeting card set on a sideboard decorated with framed photographs of Harding’s family. “It’s already been tagged and photographed.”
Levi picked the card up carefully with the tips of his gloved fingers. The front was a shimmery ombré design with the words Sorry I missed it in silver foil. Inside, Happy Belated Birthday! was printed above a typed message.
Dear Detective Abrams,
I know your birthday was in January, but the perfect gift takes time to prepare. Rest assured I haven’t forgotten. I’ll have something special for you soon.
An imprint of a seven of spades card had been left with a rubber stamp at the bottom of the page.
Goose bumps prickled across Levi’s skin, and he was gripped with the sudden irrational urge to tear the card to shreds. Instead, he looked to Martine, who was eyeing the card the way she would a tarantula.
“What the hell does that mean?” she said.
“I have no idea,” said Levi. “But I’m pretty sure I’m not going to like it.”
Dominic walked into the Double Down Saloon, a raucous dive bar whose official motto was Shut Up and Drink!, and had to immediately dodge a stumbling drunk puking his way out the door. He rolled his eyes and squinted through the chaos, spotting his client in less than five seconds.
The Double D attracted a rowdy punk-rock crowd, and Nathan Royce stood out like the sole diamond in a hand full of spades. He was a preppy white silver fox wearing a nice suit and fancy watch that screamed upper middle class, not exactly the bar’s usual clientele. It didn’t help that he was twitchy as hell, glancing around nervously, tapping his foot against the floor, drumming his fingers on the high-top table he was standing beside.
Dominic bulldozed his way through the mob—not a difficult proposition for a man of his towering height and muscular build—until he reached Royce. “We could have met somewhere else,” he said, leaning close to be heard over the incoherent yet wildly enthusiastic band.
Royce shook his head. “No risk of seeing someone I know here.”
“You’re the client,” Dominic said with a shrug. He hefted his messenger bag onto the table; in this environment, it was less likely to attract attention than a briefcase.
“Have you found anything?”
“You know, I could do my job a lot faster if you’d be more specific about what I’m looking for.”
“I’ve told you enough,” Royce said impatiently. “Highly valuable proprietary information has been compromised in a way that’s caused my company severe financial losses in a suspiciously short period of time. It’s either a conspiracy to commit insurance fraud, or corporate sabotage by a competing agency. What more do you need to know?”
“The nature of the compromised information, for starters.”
“I can’t tell you that.”
Dominic stifled a sigh. Royce was the director of Management Liability Insurance at Kensington Insurance Group, a national firm catering to high-net-worth individuals and Fortune 500 companies. He’d hired McBride Investigations three weeks ago, and while it was a juicy contract, his refusal to disclose the full extent of the problem meant it was also unnecessarily frustrating.
Tilting his head, Dominic put Royce under closer scrutiny. It was hot in the Double D, like any other bar packed to capacity with drunk horny idiots, but Royce was sweating far more profusely than was warranted. There was a fine tremor in his hands as well.
“Something else went wrong,” Dominic said. “Today. That’s why you wanted to meet last-minute.”
“I . . .” Royce gave him a startled look. “Yes. There have been, ah . . . concerning new developments. But that’s all I can say.”
“All right.” Dominic withdrew a thick stack of bound folders from his messenger bag and pushed them across the table. “I’ve been conducting exhaustive background checks on all the names you gave me. I’m still working my way down the list, but so far everyone is clean.”
“You haven’t gone through everyone yet?”
“It’s a long list, Mr. Royce.”
The pool of potential suspects Royce had provided was divided into two camps: KIG clients who could be involved in insurance fraud, and executives at competing agencies who might be working a corporate sabotage angle. Judging by the sheer number of names, Royce was either extremely paranoid or in deep shit.
When he was sure Royce was done interrupting, Dominic continued. “I haven’t found any of the red flags you’d expect to see in cases of fraud or sabotage. No connections to criminal elements. No sudden financial windfalls or unusual excessive spending. No evidence of recent erratic behavior like unexplained absences from work or uncharacteristic anxiety. There was only one thing even slightly out of the ordinary. You had me check out Ethan Deering, the CFO of Aphelion Innovations?”
Royce nodded, his eyes round.
“Two weeks ago, their CEO Rose Nguyen went on an unexpected medical leave for a few days. Deering had to scramble to cover for her at some important client meetings. But she’s back at work now, and it’s business as usual, so it doesn’t seem suspicious.”
Royce licked his lips and looked away, avoiding Dominic’s gaze. He was gripping the stack of folders so tightly Dominic could see his knuckles whitening even through the gloom of the dark bar.
Now it seemed suspicious.
“What about the local KIG employees?” Royce asked.
Erring on the side of discretion, Dominic pretended he didn’t know Royce was changing the subject on purpose. “There haven’t been any alerts from the spyware you had us install on their computers—though you may want to consider blocking Facebook. McBride had a technical specialist comb through your system, and he couldn’t find any backdoors or other weaknesses an average hacker could exploit. Would you like me to do another technical surveillance countermeasure sweep of your office?”
“Not yet. I got too many questions the first time you did one.” Royce dug his phone out of his jacket pocket. “I’m going to email you another name to add to the list—she needs to be prioritized over anyone else you have left.”
Patting the folders, Royce said, “I can keep these?”
“Sure. They’re just copies of my original research.”
“Great, thanks. Keep in touch.”
Too late. Royce had already scooped up the folders and was hightailing it out of the bar, shouldering his way through the boisterous crowd.
His skin crawling with irritation, Dominic briefly considered following Royce and putting him under surveillance for a while, just to get some straight answers for once. The only thing that decided him against it was his concern that his boss would find out. Ever since his gambling had critically endangered an investigation several months ago, he’d been skating on thin ice with her.
He had the gambling compartmentalized now, and he never allowed it to interfere with his work as a PI. But McBride was not renowned for her forgiving nature, so he couldn’t risk another slipup.
Heaving a sigh, he slung his messenger bag over his shoulder. He’d had enough of Royce’s case for one day; he’d start looking into the new name tomorrow morning. In the meantime, he’d go home and get some dinner, maybe take Rebel out for a run, and play a little online poker.
The blackjack tables at the Railroad Pass had been hot tonight, though. He’d had to tear himself away from a winning streak to make it to this meeting. If he went back, he could keep riding that wave and clean house—
No. No way. He’d just come from spending hours at the casino; he wasn’t going to drive all the way back out to Henderson at this time of night. It would be too ridiculous.
* * * * * * *
Dominic’s blaring alarm dragged him out of sleep at six the next morning. He moaned in protest and flailed one arm out, slapping blindly at his phone until it stopped.
He was so groggy his head felt stuffed with cotton. He hadn’t gotten home from the Railroad Pass until . . . two a.m.? Three? Most of the night was a blur.
The only thing that stopped him from immediately falling back to sleep was a quiet whine beside the bed. He opened his eyes to find Rebel, his German Shepherd–Rottweiler mix, staring at him from inches away with a sad, soulful gaze.
Guilt crashed through him and twisted his guts into knots. He reached out with one hand to scruff Rebel’s ears, leaning forward so she could lick his face.
When he’d supported himself through bounty hunting, he’d brought her on almost every job. She’d been by his side practically twenty-four hours a day for years. But he’d started leaving her home for longer periods of time once he’d gotten an internship at McBride, and these days she spent more time alone or with his next-door neighbors than she did with him.
He had taken her out a few hours ago when he got home, so he knew she didn’t have to relieve herself. She was probably just lonely.
God, could he be a more worthless piece of shit?
“You want to go for a run?” he asked. Rebel’s enthusiastic tail wag shook her entire body, and he laughed before throwing back the covers. “Okay, let’s go.”
They drove out to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to run their usual five-mile route through the campus. As their feet pounded the sidewalk side by side, Dominic used the opportunity to clear his head and refocus on the Royce investigation.
One of the major stumbling blocks that prevented Dominic from working at full efficiency was that he didn’t know what kind of insurance fraud Royce’s clients might be perpetrating. Royce refused to disclose the nature of their policies.
The clients he’d had Dominic investigate were all high-ranking executives in successful companies with local Vegas offices. The name he’d given Dominic last night, for example, was Cindy Barnes, Director of Administration at a Vegas-based investment firm.
So Dominic could deduce that the policies were corporate in nature. But he’d looked into all those companies, and not one of them showed evidence of recent problems—no thefts, lawsuits, disgruntled employees, or anything of the kind. There was no reason for them to file claims against any corporate insurance policy.
Then again, it might not be insurance fraud at all. Royce seemed convinced that corporate sabotage was an equally likely possibility. The fact that Royce didn’t know which problem he was facing made the whole situation even more bewildering.
By the time Dominic and Rebel returned to their apartment building, both of them pleasantly worn out by the hard run, he was no closer to finding a satisfactory answer. He let Rebel off her leash when they entered the chain-link fence surrounding the property. As they walked past the pool at the center of the U-shaped building, they ran into Jasmine Anderson, one of his next-door neighbors and closest friends.
“Hey,” he said, bending down to kiss her cheek. “Sorry, I’m all sweaty.”
“That’s okay.” Jasmine had her dozens of multicolored braids bound in a giant bun the way she did when she meant business. She crouched to give Rebel an ear scratch. “I’m just on my way to the final meeting with the wedding DJ.”
“Want me to come with?”
“Nah, my mom’s meeting me. Thanks though.” She straightened back up. “Is everything set for Carlos’s bachelor party?”
Like many couples these days, Carlos and Jasmine had decided to have their bachelor and bachelorette parties weeks in advance of the actual wedding. Dominic was determined not to drop the ball as Carlos’s best man as badly as he had earlier in their engagement, so when Carlos had confided how it important it was for him to have the quintessential American experience of a classic bachelor party—minus anything skanky—Dominic had pulled out all the stops.
“Yep. We’ll start the night with a traditional steak dinner, then a party bike pub crawl of some of Vegas’s most outrageous bars, and we’ll hook up with you and your girlfriends at Stingray to cap things off. I told all the guys to keep the details secret from Carlos.”
“Sounds great. So . . .” Jasmine glanced up at him through her thick eyelashes, chewing on her lip ring. “We thought we heard Levi’s voice Saturday night.”
Oh, they’d heard Levi, all right. Dominic’s bedroom shared a wall with Carlos and Jasmine’s, and Levi screamed like a motherfucking banshee during sex.
“He came over, yeah.”
“Are you guys getting back together?”
Dominic stiffened. Rebel, who had perked up at the mention of Levi’s name, sat at attention and panted happily.
“I don’t think so,” he said tightly. It had been incredible having Levi in his arms again, watching Levi relax and light up with pleasure, hearing Levi’s gasped declarations of love while Dominic surged inside of him and returned them in kind.
But the very next morning they’d had a knock-down, drag-out fight as bad as any that had come before it—a confrontation that ended with Levi throwing a plate at a wall and storming out. The whole thing had been very mature and classy.
Levi would never accept that Dominic could control his gambling; he believed Dominic was too weak. Dominic had to come to terms with that reality sooner or later.
“You know we invited Levi to the wedding,” Jasmine said. “He already RSVP’d yes. Is that okay with you?”
“It’s fine,” said Dominic, pretending the thought of Levi at his best friends’ wedding wasn’t more painful than the bullet he’d taken in Afghanistan.
“Great. And, um . . . you’re doing okay, right?”
Dominic’s hackles rose further and he scowled at her. He, Jasmine, and Carlos had arrived at an unspoken understanding: he didn’t let his gambling affect his relationships with them, and they didn’t bring it up. Ever.
“Is there a reason I wouldn’t be?” he said, his voice pitched low in warning.
She backed off at once. “Nope. Look, I gotta run. See you later?”
“Sure. Have fun.”
He watched her walk out to the parking lot, squashing his rising remorse. Feelings of shame and guilt only intensified his urge to gamble, but he was in charge this time. He wouldn’t let it control him anymore.
Whistling to Rebel, he headed for the stairs.
The slam of Levi’s car door was swallowed up by the vast open space surrounding him. He’d parked along the curb in a suburban housing tract at the very northwestern edge of the Las Vegas Valley. At the end of the street a few blocks north, civilization abruptly gave way to miles of desert and mountains, with a couple of lonely roads meandering off into the distance.
The houses here were Southwestern ranches on large square lots, but one lot on the neighborhood’s perimeter was vacant—just an empty expanse of sand and scrub, now swarming with LVMPD personnel. Though this area lay outside the Vegas city limits, the LVMPD was a police department and sheriff’s department in one, and therefore responsible for investigating homicides that occurred in unincorporated areas of Clark County as well as the city itself.
This wasn’t necessarily a homicide, though; the responding officer had called it in as a suspicious death. That meant it couldn’t be the work of the Seven of Spades, which was a huge relief. Levi had been obsessing over the killer’s threatening promise for days, trying to anticipate what fresh horrors they had in store, flinching every time his phone rang—
STOP, he thought. He shoved his anxious thoughts aside and concentrated instead on the image of a stop sign, picturing every detail. Stop it now.
Thought-stopping was a technique his therapist Alana had taught him. His friend Natasha, also a clinical social worker, had referred him to Alana several months ago to try cognitive behavioral therapy for depression and anger management. It was helping, although it seemed to be a process of two steps forward and one step back.
Travel mug in hand, he started across the street, but he halted when another car pulled up behind his. He gulped some coffee while he waited for Martine to get out. Though they usually drove to crime scenes together, they’d been called to this one so early that they’d come from their respective homes instead of the substation.
“Beautiful day for a homicide,” she said as she joined him.
He snorted. It was actually shaping up to be a gorgeous spring day—the sky clear and blue, the air pleasantly cool. Memories of weather like this were what he hung on to during the months Vegas became a suffocating hellscape and he wondered what had possessed him to move to the middle of the desert.
“Have you eaten?” she asked, because it wasn’t enough for Levi to have one mother constantly badgering him about his lean frame.
“Right before I walk into a crime scene? No.” They both knew that wasn’t why he’d skipped breakfast, but it made a good excuse.
She took his mug, sipped from it, and pushed it back into his hand with a grimace. “I swear to God your heart runs on pure caffeine. One of these days it’s just going to explode.”
Ordinarily he would have returned her banter with a snappy comeback, but he didn’t have it in him this morning. He shrugged and started across the street.
Catching his elbow, she gave him a closer look and then said, “Shit. Nightmare again?”
“Yeah,” he muttered.
For most of his life, he’d been plagued by recurring nightmares about being trapped and helpless while pursued by a relentless, unseen enemy. A few months ago, however, the tone of those dreams had shifted. Now he was the hunter stalking the terrified prey, every single time.
Martine and Alana were the only people who knew about the change in his nightmares. He’d never even told Dominic.
“I’m fine,” he said, hating the concern he’d put on her face. He wiggled his mug. “Just sleep-deprived. Hence the triple Red Eye.”
“Blech,” she said—and offered no further judgment or commentary, which was one of the many things he loved about her.
They crossed the street and were approached by a uniformed officer named Daley while they were signing the crime scene log and pulling on gloves and booties. “Morning, Detectives,” he said.
“Morning, Daley,” said Levi. “You’re the responding officer?”
“Yep.” He held up the tape so Levi and Martine could duck underneath. “Victim was found about two hours ago by the people living in the house next door. They let their dog out in the morning like usual, and he ran straight for the body. Messed around with it a little before they pulled him off, but he didn’t do any physical damage.”
Levi followed the direction of Daley’s pointing finger to a middle-aged couple at the far edge of the lot, deep in conversation with a pair of uniforms. A Golden Retriever paced around at the end of a leash, looking intrigued by all the activity. “We’ll need hair and saliva samples from the dog.”
Martine nodded. “I’ll interview the witnesses, you check out the body?”
She headed off, and Levi followed Daley across the sand.
The victim was a white male in his late forties to early fifties, average height and build, lying on his back. He was dressed casually in a T-shirt, sweatpants, and sneakers, and there were no obvious injuries or immediately apparent cause of death. The only remarkable thing about the body was that his left eye was heavily bandaged.
“Victim’s name is Joel Buckner,” Daley said. “Aged 51, Summerlin address.”
“He had ID on him?”
“Yeah. Wallet was full of cash and credit cards, too.”
That ruled out robbery as a motive, and meant the killer wasn’t concerned about Buckner’s identity being discovered. Assuming, of course, that there was a killer at all.
Levi was leaning toward homicide, though, because Buckner’s body had clearly been dumped here. This area was nothing but sand and gritty, dusty soil, but the soles of his sneakers were squeaky clean. In fact, the shoes looked like they’d never been worn before.
“Cell phone?” he asked.
“Not that we’ve been able to find.”
“Thanks.” He broke away from Daley and moved closer to the body, kneeling on the opposite side from the coroner investigator, who was hard at work.
After they exchanged pleasantries, she said, “I’d estimate he died within the past twelve hours. It’s impossible to determine cause of death without a full autopsy, but I suspect some kind of overdose or poisoning. I’d almost say it could even be natural causes, if not for the location and, well . . .” She pointed to the bandaged eye.
“Yeah, I was going to ask about that. What’s going on there?”
She grasped the edge of the bandage, hesitated, and said, “Did you eat breakfast?”
She wasn’t asking for the same reason Martine had. “No,” he said warily.
“Good idea.” She peeled back the thick bandage, revealing an eyeless socket containing nothing but a half-open eyelid that exposed the empty cavity beneath.
“Ugh,” Levi said, recoiling. This was far from the worst thing he’d seen in his years as a cop, but there was just something about a hollowed-out eye socket that was deeply repugnant.
“Enucleation.” The coroner investigator left the bandage pulled aside. “Total removal of the entire eyeball. Definitely done premortem, but very recent—within the past twenty-four to forty-eight hours, judging by the stage of the healing process.”
“I doubt it. His eye wasn’t gouged out; it was surgically removed by someone who knew what they were doing. The wound’s been cleaned and bandaged properly too, and there are no signs of infection.”
In someone who’d been tortured, Levi would also expect to see signs of a struggle, defensive wounds, and bruises and abrasions from being bound. There was no evidence of that on Buckner—Levi would have to get a closer look underneath the man’s clothing, but his bare arms were unmarked. There was just some minor irritation and slight bruising on the back of his right hand.
“Have you seen this?” he asked.
“Yeah. It’s almost certainly from an IV line. It could have been used to sedate the victim during the procedure, or to administer pain medication or antibiotics afterward. Or it could have been used to kill him.”
This was just getting weirder and weirder. Levi thanked the coroner investigator for her time, stood up, and backed away from the body so he could take in the scene at large.
The choice of dumping ground had been deliberate. This was an isolated spot with no cameras around; it would be easy for a vehicle to drive through and drop a body off undetected.
But it wasn’t so isolated that the body wouldn’t be quickly discovered. The killer could have dumped Buckner in the adjacent desert; instead, they’d chosen to leave him in this neighborhood with his ID still on him. They’d wanted him found, which could have been a message for someone, or even a sign of respect for the deceased or his family.
Why remove someone’s eye if you weren’t torturing them, though? Levi had never seen mutilation unaccompanied by other signs of rage or hatred toward the victim. What was the point in doing something like this so dispassionately? Organ theft, maybe, but that was unlikely with the rest of the body intact.
The coroner investigator had suggested there was a gap of a day or two between the removal of the eye and Buckner’s death, so . . . maybe the threat had been used as leverage against a third party, or against Buckner himself? If someone wanted something from Buckner they weren’t getting, slicing out an eye was a good way to prove they weren’t fucking around. If that were the case, though, things must have gone sideways for Buckner to end up dead.
One thing was certain—this wasn’t a random act of violence. Somebody somewhere had a personal motive for killing Buckner. All Levi had to do was find out who that was.
* * * * * * *
Hours later, Levi leaned back in his chair at the substation and rubbed his dry eyes. He’d finally made some progress—incremental, but progress nonetheless.
Joel Buckner was the founder and managing partner of Buckner Partners LLC, a Las Vegas–based investment firm with multiple overseas enterprises. He had no criminal history and no known association with any criminal organizations, nor did any members of his immediate family. His company had also never fallen under any suspicion of wrongdoing; Levi had checked with Financial Crimes and the SEC to be sure.
Despite his illustrious position, however, Buckner had been in debt up to his . . . well, eyeball. His firm, while operating within the bounds of law and ethics, was failing. He and his wife were months behind on their mortgage, and all their credit cards were maxed out.
Was it possible Buckner had gotten in too deep with a loan shark? Debt made people desperate, and desperate people made bad decisions. Vegas loan sharks weren’t above snatching people up and dishing out pain if they didn’t get their money, though Levi had never heard of one putting a guy’s eye out. In fact, he’d never seen this brand of mutilation in the Valley before. It also seemed unlikely that a loan shark would kill a man who could now never pay them back.
One step at a time. As much as Levi hated dealing with the arrogant pricks in Organized Crime, they’d be more up-to-date with the rumblings among the local loan sharks. He heaved a sigh and reached for his desk phone.
His cell phone rang, giving him a good excuse to put off the unpalatable call for another few minutes. Seeing Martine’s name on the screen, he said, “How’s it going over there?”
Martine had spent the morning with Buckner’s family, breaking the news of his death and then interviewing them one by one. “They’re giving me nothing,” she said, her voice thrumming with frustration. “Stonewalling me at every turn. It’s obvious they’re hiding something.”
“Really?” he said, his curiosity piqued. “Like what?”
“I’m not sure. When I told them Buckner was dead, they seemed genuinely devastated, but . . . I don’t know. It’s like they already knew what I was going to say. They weren’t surprised at all.”
“You think they were involved?”
“Hmm . . .” Martine was a good detective, and she wouldn’t dismiss a theory out of hand no matter how implausible it seemed. “I doubt it. The kids are nine and seven, and they reacted the same way their mom did. I can’t imagine her pulling them into a plot to kill their dad.”
Levi agreed. He told Martine about Buckner’s debts, and she made a soft sound of surprise.
“Before I called you, I checked in with the kids’ school. They’ve been out for three days. Mom told the school they have the flu, but I didn’t see any evidence of that.”
“Well, we know from the gap between Buckner’s death and his eye being removed that whoever killed him had him for at least twenty-four hours, maybe more.” Levi gazed blankly into space, his fingers tapping his desk. “His family had to have known he was gone, and maybe they also know why. If they know who killed him, they may be too afraid of retaliation to say anything.”
“Could explain their jumpy behavior. Look, I’m not gonna get anything more out of these people today. I’ll head over to Buckner’s company and talk to his colleagues, see if they know anything helpful. If I push them on his debts, maybe something will pop up.”
“Good thinking. I’m about to check in with OC about the loan shark angle. I’ll let you know what I find.”
They ended their call just in time for Levi to hear a voice say, “This is Detective Abrams right here.”
He looked up. A uniformed officer was approaching his desk, escorting a young, casually dressed Asian woman with a visitor’s badge pinned to her hoodie. Her long black hair was styled in a way that concealed the entire left side of her face; it was so clearly deliberate that Levi assumed it was an attempt to hide some kind of scarring.
The officer nodded to Levi and went on his way. “I’m Detective Abrams,” Levi said, getting to his feet and extending his hand. “You needed to see me?”
“Yes. Rose Nguyen.” She shook his hand briskly. “I’m sorry to just show up like this, but I didn’t know how else to contact you.”
Martine’s desk adjoined Levi’s so the two were facing each other. Since she wasn’t here, Levi stole her chair and wheeled it around to the side for Nguyen. He gestured for her to take a seat, and sat down as well.
“How can I help you?” he asked, bracing himself. If Nguyen had come here looking for him by name, it had to be related to the Seven of Spades.
Which brand of nutjob would it be this time? Conspiracy theorist convinced that her boyfriend/coworker/neighbor was the Seven of Spades? Serial killer groupie hoping to learn more by pretending to have helpful information? Angry citizen who held Levi personally responsible for the Seven of Spades’s continued rampage?
“I just read about Joel Buckner’s death online,” Nguyen said. “A blogger with a contact in the coroner’s office leaked the details.”
Wait. What? Levi gave his head a slight shake to clear it. “Did you know Mr. Buckner?”
“Not at all, but I think I may know what happened to him.”
“How?” Levi said, nonplussed.
She shifted her hair aside, displaying an unscarred face and a bandaged left eye. “Because the same thing happened to me.”
“Can I get you anything?” Levi asked as he shut the door to the more comfortable—and private—interview room adjacent to the bullpen. “Water, coffee?”
“No, thanks,” said Nguyen, who had settled onto the same overstuffed couch that had graced this room since the early 1990s.
Levi sat across from her, pulling out a notepad and pen. “Why don’t you start at the beginning?”
“It happened almost a month ago, on February 20th,” she said. “I was the last one at the office, like usual, and I left work pretty late. On my way home, I got funneled into some kind of detour for road work. I ended up on this little side street. There was a stretch where huge construction equipment was parked on either side, and as soon as my car was between those machines, large black SUVs pulled up in front of and behind me and boxed me in.”
A standard kidnapping technique, though one requiring strategy and precision. He nodded for her to continue.
“Masked men jumped out of the SUVs, dragged me from my car, and injected me with something that knocked me unconscious. It all happened so fast I didn’t even have time to process it. When I woke up, I was blindfolded and tied to a bed.” She stopped to take an unsteady breath.
“Were you harmed in any way besides your eye?” Levi asked as gently as he could.
“No. I mean, I was terrified that they were going to . . . well, I’m sure you have an idea. But once they’d taken me, they barely touched me. They mostly left me alone, and when they did talk to me, they were . . . polite. Businesslike, I’d say.”
Professionals, then, with no stake in Nguyen beyond their payday.
“As soon as I was awake, they told me I was being held for ransom and would be safely released once it was paid,” she went on. “Then they removed the restraints and let me have free rein of the room I was locked in.”
Levi frowned. Kidnapping an adult and holding them without torture or sexual assault for a straightforward ransom? While that was an everyday occurrence in some parts of the world, it was unusual in the United States. “Did you take off the blindfold?”
“I couldn’t. It was locked somehow; if I had to guess, I’d say it was some kind of fetish gear.” She cracked her neck from side to side and said, “You know, I think I will take a water, please.”
He got up to fetch a bottle of water from the fridge in the corner. She took a few shallow sips before soldiering on.
“I’ve had kidnapping safety training, so I knew to stay calm and follow directions. But I also did what I could to learn the layout of the room and listen at the door as much as possible. So I heard right away when they found out my company had refused to negotiate.”
“Aphelion Innovations. We’re still pretty small, but we recently signed a huge contract with the Department of Defense. I’m the CEO and chief engineer. The kidnappers went straight to my board of directors for the ransom.”
“But they refused to pay?”
“Yeah. I found out later they thought it was a hoax and cut off all contact with the kidnappers. After that, I heard a lot of tense whispering and discussion through the door, but I couldn’t make out most of it. Then the kidnappers got a phone call. A few minutes later, they came into my room and told me they needed to sedate me. I was afraid they’d do something worse if I refused, so I cooperated. They injected something in my arm, and when I regained consciousness . . .” She swallowed hard, her breathing speeding up. “My . . . my eye was gone. I guess they wanted to send a message that couldn’t be ignored.”
She sucked in a shuddering breath, and tears trickled from her remaining eye. Levi handed her a box of tissues and waited quietly while she collected herself.
He knew what it was like to be victimized—not just the pain and fear, but the shame, the deep sense of helplessness and all the bitter self-blame that accompanied it. Those things left behind a gritty slime that couldn’t be scrubbed away by other people’s platitudes, no matter how many times they said, It’s not your fault or There’s nothing you could have done.
Words like that had never helped Levi, so he didn’t say them now.
Eventually, her tears stopped and she seemed calmer. “Sorry about that.”
“No need to apologize. It was brave for you to come here and tell me this at all.”
She smiled faintly, balling the tissues in her fist.
“Could you tell me about what happened after . . .” He gestured vaguely toward her eye.
“After they took my eye, they kept me drugged, so the rest of it is a blur. I know they gave me pain meds, and the doctors I saw later said they must have given me antibiotics too.” She shredded the tissues as she spoke, fluffy white bits raining onto the couch. “About a day later, they told me the ransom had been paid and they were taking me back to the city, but they’d come back for me if anyone reported the kidnapping to the police. They knocked me out again. This time, I woke up in a wheelchair outside an emergency room.”
Levi leaned forward. “Did the kidnappers use those words exactly? That they were taking you ‘back to the city’?”
“Um . . .” She gave it some thought before nodding. “Yeah, that’s what they said verbatim. I remember because I was so relieved.”
Meaning the kidnappers had held Nguyen outside the city. They would have wanted to stay close, though, to make for easier transport and communication. Levi’s mind flashed back to the desert roads ribboning through the sand near Buckner’s dump site.
“You mentioned you’ve had kidnapping safety training. Is that because of your company’s contract with the DoD?”
“No, actually. Aphelion has always done a lot of work improving information systems infrastructure in developing nations. Places where kidnap for ransom is a genuine industry—Central America, certain areas in Asia and the Middle East. Once the company started making a name for itself, the board insisted I go through the training just in case. And as I found out later, it’s why they bought a kidnap-and-ransom policy for me.”
He lifted his head from his notes. “A what?”
“An insurance policy against kidnap and ransom,” she said. “You don’t hear about them a lot, but they exist. And thank God they do, or this ransom would have bankrupted my company. I obsessed over that the whole time those men had me. At least it was a relief to find out we’d still be solvent.”
Trying to wrap his brain around this new information, Levi said, “So you didn’t know your board had purchased this policy for you until after the kidnapping?”
She shrugged. “They couldn’t tell me. Apparently, it’s a precondition of the policy that the subject doesn’t know it exists—at least, that’s how it is at KIG. Something about preventing insurance fraud.”
“How does it work?”
“When the policyholders receive a ransom demand, KIG sends out a professional crisis response team so law enforcement doesn’t have to get involved. After the exchange is made, they reimburse you for everything—not just the ransom, but time lost from work, even medical care.” Nguyen brushed a self-conscious hand against her bandages. “They’re paying for me to get a prosthetic eye. So far I’ve had an ocular implant put in, and once it’s had a few months to heal, they can fit me for the actual prosthesis.”
Levi jotted down notes in shorthand, his mind racing. He could see the need for measures like this in other countries, but he’d bet money the insurance company had never expected this policy to be activated on US soil.
“You said your policy was through KIG—that’s Kensington Insurance Group, right?”
She nodded. He scribbled down the name and underlined it several times.
“If the kidnappers threatened you to keep you from going to the police, why did you decide to come forward?” he asked.
“I didn’t know they’d done this to anyone else, but then I found out they killed one of their victims. That means something went wrong, right?” She spread her hands. “Who knows what else they might do, how many other people they might hurt? I can’t have that on my conscience.”
Levi admired her courage even more now. “We can set up a protective detail for you, just in case.”
She gratefully agreed, and after that, he walked her through her story again, probing for more detail. Nguyen believed she’d been kidnapped by a team of five or six men. She’d never seen their faces and they hadn’t used names, but she was sure she’d recognize their voices if she heard them again. From what she’d learned through eavesdropping, the men had been receiving instructions via phone from someone who wasn’t present.
Because she’d been unconscious both times she’d been transported, she had no idea where she’d been held. However, she had noticed a distinct lack of ambient noise in the environment—no traffic, neighbors, or anything beyond the sounds of the men in the next room and a constant rumbling she was sure was a generator. There had been no running water, so her captors had provided her with bottled water to drink and bathe with.
Once Levi was satisfied he had everything, he got Nguyen’s contact information and gave her his card. As they stood, one last question occurred to him. “What exactly did the kidnappers do with your eye?”
She was quiet for a moment, then said, “They sent it to the chairman of the board.”
Or, check your local library.
Word Count: ~97,000
Page Count: ~366
Cover By: Garrett Leigh
Series: Seven of Spades
Release Date: 09/10/2018
Release Date: 09/10/2018