A Chip and a Chair (Seven of Spades, #5)
It's time to lay all the cards on the table.
Detective Levi Abrams and PI Dominic Russo are reunited and more committed to each other than ever, but they can’t truly move forward with their lives until the serial killer who’s been tormenting them is behind bars. When a secret burial site is discovered in the desert with the remains of the Seven of Spades’s earliest victims, that goal finally seems within reach.
But just as the net is tightening, the neo-Nazi militia Utopia launches their master plan with a devastating act of terror that changes the landscape of Las Vegas forever. As Levi and Dominic scramble to prevent the city’s destruction, they’re opposed by treacherous forces that propel them toward catastrophe. In the end, Levi’s fate may rest in the hands of the very killer he’s been hunting.
The race to save Sin City is on, and these players are going for broke. No matter how hopeless things seem, as long as they’re together and they’ve got a chip to play and a chair to sit in, they’re still in the game.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
Threat of Sexual Assault
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: 2 - Not many
Genre: action / adventure, mystery, romance, suspense / thriller
Tone: dark, exciting, gritty, intense, realistic
Themes: abduction/kidnapping/hostage (actual), addiction, angst, commitment, depression, family, gambling addiction, hurt / comfort, interracial/multicultural, mental illness, protection, recovery, self-discovery / self-reflection
Kinks: barebacking, clothed sex, dirty talk, rimming / anilingus, rough sex, size
Settings: America, city, Las Vegas, Nevada, police station
Careers: law enforcement, private investigator
“Shame you gotta ruin the view,” Martine said.
Levi turned from the heavy mesh grating Dominic had installed over the glass door to their new balcony. “It’s only temporary. The minute the Seven of Spades is in cuffs, this thing is coming down.”
She grinned. “That’s what I like to hear.”
He meant it, too. Although the Seven of Spades had been inactive in the month following Carolyn Royce’s live-streamed murder, he knew the investigation was closing in. He felt the inevitability of the killer’s capture in his bones—it was only a matter of time.
Two men came through the apartment’s front door, carrying a couch between them—Antoine Valcourt, Martine’s tall, laconic husband, and Ezra Stone, husband to Levi’s friend Natasha. They almost tripped over the four-year-old boy who barreled around the corner of the island in the center of the room, screaming and laughing at the top of his lungs.
“Jack!” Natasha exclaimed from the kitchen, where she was unpacking boxes of plates and silverware. “What did Mommy say about running inside?”
“It’s okay, Natasha, I’ve got him.” Adriana scooped a giggling Jack off the floor, tossed him in the air, and then swung him around with the easy strength built by almost a year of rigorous training with Levi. She’d spent most of the afternoon playing with Jack instead of moving anything, but that was just as helpful.
Trusting Martine’s judgment, Levi left her to direct the placement of the couch while he headed out to grab another load from the moving van. Right in the doorway, however, he had to quickly sidestep another couple carting boxes—Carlos and Jasmine, Dominic’s now former next-door neighbors.
“It’s a good thing one of you is so organized.” Carlos nodded to his box’s neatly printed label, which read LIVING ROOM in bold type above a detailed list of the contents. “Dom would have just thrown his crap into random boxes and marked them all ‘Stuff.’”
Levi chuckled, took the box Jasmine was holding, and followed them into the living room.
Planting her hands on her hips, Jasmine stood in the center of the open floor plan and looked around with an artist’s critical eye. “This is a nice place. Tons of natural light, and I love these hardwood floors.”
“Levi, you want this in the spare room, right?” Dominic said behind them.
Any response Levi might have made died when he turned around. Dominic was standing in the entryway, holding one end of a bulky armoire. Underneath its weight, the brawny muscles of his shoulders and arms stood out in sharp relief, glistening with sweat and straining against the sleeves of his T-shirt. Beneath that, basketball shorts clung to the rock-hard ass and massive thighs that gave him the thrusting power of a jackhammer.
The other end of the armoire was supported by Dominic’s brother Vinnie, who was similar to Dominic in height and build. But Vinnie and everyone else in the room might as well have ceased to exist for all Levi was aware of them. His mind went blank.
Dominic cleared his throat. “Baby, this is kind of heavy,” he said, his warm eyes crinkling at the corners.
“Sorry.” Levi snapped himself out of it, his face flushing. “The spare room, yeah.”
He and Dominic had chosen a two-bedroom apartment so Levi could use one room as an office—and, honestly, an escape route for when he needed to be alone. He was far more introverted than Dominic, who thrived on personal connections with everyone from the mailman to passing strangers.
As Dominic and Vinnie carried the armoire away, Dominic flinched and subtly shifted more of its weight to his right arm. Levi’s eyes narrowed. Dominic had been fine when they’d gone their separate ways this morning, but since they’d reconnected in the afternoon, Levi had noticed him favoring his left side three times now.
Levi’s thoughts were interrupted by the entrance of the last member of their moving party, Leila. “What about these?” she asked. “They’re the only things that aren’t labeled.”
His breath caught when he saw the two file boxes she was holding, one stacked atop the other. They were locked, but if Leila of all people somehow got a glimpse of what was inside—
“I’ll take those.” He snatched the boxes out of her arms so fast he almost knocked them to the floor. “Actually, I’ll deal with all the boxes that look like this. Don’t worry about it.”
She gave him an odd look. “Okay,” she said slowly, before returning the way she’d come, accompanying Carlos and Jasmine on another run to the truck.
Martine appeared at Levi’s side. “You need to get your shit together,” she hissed so that only he could hear. “If you keep acting so weird around Leila, she’s gonna figure out something’s up.”
“I’m not good at hiding things.”
Levi sighed. Given their recently aroused misgivings about Leila, he probably shouldn’t have asked her to help today, but that would have been just as suspicious.
He brought the file boxes into the spare room. They were the first two of more than a dozen identical containers; each was crammed full of his and Dominic’s independent investigation into the Seven of Spades, which properly belonged in the armoire Dominic and Vinnie were placing against the wall. Most of the work in these boxes had never been seen by eyes other than Dominic’s, Martine’s, and his own, and he planned on keeping it that way.
After Vinnie left the room, Dominic lingered behind with Levi. “Have you seen Rebel?”
“She’s in the master bedroom. She’s been moping in there all afternoon—it’s not like her at all.”
“I know,” Dominic said glumly. “I think she’s upset we’re moving.”
“She’ll adjust, especially once she sees that great dog park.”
Dominic leaned down to kiss Levi, then brushed his lips over the jagged diagonal scar that slashed across Levi’s forehead. Levi’s eyes drifted shut.
After the Seven of Spades had murdered a man in Levi’s last apartment, he’d only returned to remove his belongings. He’d been staying at Dominic’s place since the day they’d gotten back together five weeks ago, but they’d both known that wasn’t a sustainable solution. Dominic’s apartment was too small, and while the closeness had helped solidify their reunion, it wasn’t practical over the long term. They’d started apartment-hunting right away.
At first, they’d had trouble finding a building that was willing to even show them around. Everyone in the goddamn country knew a serial killer was prone to dropping bodies around Levi, and Levi himself was a notorious public figure—though now that he’d been cleared of suspicion in the Seven of Spades’s crimes, public sentiment once more skewed heavily in his favor.
He and Dominic had finally found a building more intrigued by the cachet of housing the famous Detective Levi Abrams than they were worried about the Seven of Spades striking again. The place also met his and Dominic’s stringent security requirements—gated grounds, in-unit alarm system, and a management company that would let them install increased security measures on all the doors and windows—so Levi hadn’t hesitated to sign the lease.
Dominic’s name wasn’t on it. Even after Levi’s ex, Stanton, had paid off Dominic’s mountain of gambling debts, Dominic’s rock-bottom credit would have had their application rejected out of hand, cachet or no. The lease was an extremely touchy subject for Dominic, so although they were making a conscious effort to keep the lines of communication open and honest, that was one topic they always skirted around.
“So are you gonna help me move some of the furniture,” Dominic said, “or were you just planning to ogle me lifting heavy objects all day?”
Levi smacked his ass. “I’ll ogle you later,” he said, and led the way out of the room.
Within two hours, the moving truck was empty, and while dozens of unpacked boxes littered every room, all of the basics were in place. Levi ordered enough pizza to feed everyone, and they spread out around the living room and dining nook to devour the food with the kind of hunger only inspired by manual labor.
When Levi was with his friends, talk usually turned to work, because they were all in law enforcement. Even Ezra had chosen a career of service similar to his wife’s, spending the past eight years as a public defender. But Dominic’s friends and family were civilians—not to mention Adriana and little Jack—so the conversation remained lighthearted, never straying toward topics of blood and death.
Balancing his paper plate on his lap, Levi curled up next to Dominic on the couch—their couch—and basked in the warmth of being surrounded by love and friendship. The Seven of Spades had tried to take this away from him. They’d failed, and they would keep failing as long as he had breath in his lungs.
Everyone departed gradually after dinner. Natasha and Ezra left first, wanting to get an overtired Jack home before a tantrum; Martine and Antoine followed, needing to pick up their teenage daughters. When Leila left, Levi managed to behave normally as he said goodbye.
“See you guys at brunch tomorrow?” Vinnie asked at the door.
“We’ll be there,” said Dominic.
Vinnie shook Levi’s hand, then pulled Dominic into a brief hug and slapped his back. As Vinnie walked away, Levi rubbed the spot between Dominic’s shoulder blades.
The relapse of Dominic’s gambling addiction had strained all of his relationships, including those with his large, tight-knit family. He was doing his best to rebuild them now, starting with regular attendance at their weekly Sunday lunches. He and Levi hadn’t missed one since he’d quit gambling again.
The last people remaining were Carlos, Jasmine, and Adriana. Trying not to be too obvious, Levi pulled Adriana off to the side to give Dominic some privacy with his friends. They’d lived next door to each other for years, and this parting was going to be difficult all around.
Levi watched from the corner of his eye as Dominic faced Carlos and Jasmine. The three of them stood in silence for a moment before Jasmine burst into tears.
“Hey, come on,” Dominic said, though he didn’t look far from the verge of tears himself.
“I’m sorry, it’s just . . .” She swiped at her cheeks. “It’s going to be so weird not having you right next door. We’ll go from seeing you multiple times a day to, what, once a week?”
“I didn’t move that far; we’ll still see each other all the time.” Dominic embraced her and dropped a kiss on top of her head. “Things were changing anyway. I mean, fuck, you guys are getting married next weekend. You wouldn’t want me around after that.”
Jasmine laughed against his chest. Dominic reached out to rest one hand on Carlos’s shoulder.
“Leaving you guys is the only thing that sucks about moving,” he said, his voice cracking.
Carlos joined them, his eyes glistening, turning it into a three-way hug. Levi retreated farther, uncomfortable with the display of emotion, and he could tell Adriana felt the same way.
He threw a punch at her face.
She had her hands down, not ready for it, and she reacted exactly the way a Krav Maga practitioner at her early level should—she leaned back out of the range of his strike even as her hands came up, one to redirect his fist and the other to protect her face. Her foot lashed out, stopping just short of what would have been a solid kick to the groin, and then she disengaged.
“Nice.” Pride warmed Levi’s chest. “Just passed your P1 test, and you’ve already got some of your P2 curriculum down.”
She grinned, turned in profile, and sent a side kick toward his knee. He swept her leg aside with one arm.
They played around like that, trading light blows back and forth, until Carlos and Jasmine were ready to go. As everyone said their goodbyes by the front door, Levi hugged Adriana gently, mindful of her need to not feel restrained. “See you at the rehearsal dinner.”
She surprised him by kissing his cheek, something she’d never done before. “See ya.” She gave Dominic a stiffer smile—she still wasn’t comfortable around him. “Bye, Dominic.”
The door closed behind them, leaving Levi and Dominic alone in their new apartment for the first time. Well, except for Rebel, who was still sulking in the bedroom.
The apartment was quiet, the vibe strangely awkward. Levi looked at Dominic, struck by the reality of the situation: this was their home now. They would go to bed together tonight, wake up together tomorrow morning, and after they went about their respective days, they’d return here, to their shared haven from the outside world. And that would happen every single day for the foreseeable future.
Dominic was the first to break the silence. “This is weird, right?”
“Yes,” Levi said, relieved he wasn’t alone. “But I don’t know why. We’ve already been living together for more than a month.”
“Not really. You were crashing at my place; now we live together in our place. It’s not the same.”
He was right. And for Levi, it wasn’t even the same as the two years he’d lived with Stanton, because this carried a sense of permanency he’d never felt before. Dominic was his bashert, his soul mate, his partner fated by God. This . . . this was it. The beginning of the rest of his life.
Dominic rubbed the back of his neck. “Do you think we rushed into this?”
“No.” Levi closed the distance between them, settling his hands on Dominic’s waist. “It was the right decision for us. That doesn’t mean there won’t be an adjustment period.”
He tilted his face up, and Dominic answered his unspoken request, kissing him deep and slow. Levi melted into it with a sigh, sliding his hands up Dominic’s chest—and then broke the kiss when Dominic flinched.
“I knew it,” he said. “You’re injured.”
Levi tapped the left side of Dominic’s chest, right where he judged the injury to be. Dominic grimaced, cursed, and stumbled backward, his shoulders hunching in an instinctive pain response before he straightened himself out.
“You said you wouldn’t lie to me anymore, Dominic.” Fear was bitter in the back of Levi’s throat. He didn’t know how a chest injury could be connected to gambling, but they’d been apart all morning. If Dominic had relapsed and was lying about it again, hiding it again, after he’d promised he wouldn’t—
“I’m not lying!” Dominic raised both hands. “It’s nothing bad, I swear. I just . . . It was supposed to be a surprise.”
Giving him the side-eye, Levi said, “You wanted to surprise your homicide-detective boyfriend whose paranoia is at an all-time high after being stalked by a serial killer for a year?”
“. . .Yes?”
Levi snorted and gestured for Dominic to proceed, curious despite himself. Dominic stripped off his T-shirt.
There was a fresh tattoo on Dominic’s left pectoral muscle, right over his heart—two lines of simple black Hebrew script. It was still raw, dotted with blood, and covered with a clear bandage. Levi’s mouth fell open, but no sound came out.
“Jasmine did it this morning,” Dominic said. “It was the only open slot in her schedule. Can you read it?”
Levi brushed his fingertips just below the tattoo. He’d forgotten most of the Hebrew he’d learned decades ago for his bar mitzvah, of course, but he would have recognized this quote anywhere because it was so iconic.
“‘Ani l’dodi v’dodi li,’” he murmured. “‘I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.’ Song of Songs 6:3.”
“One of Jasmine’s foster brothers is a cantor now. He wrote it down for us so we could be sure it was right.”
Levi’s throat was so swollen with emotion he wasn’t sure he could speak. He coughed, swallowed hard, and managed, “You understand the irony in getting a tattoo to honor your Jewish boyfriend, right?”
Dominic laughed. “Oh, please. Plenty of Jews have tattoos these days. I crossed paths with the IDF a few times while I was with the Rangers, and lots of those guys are tatted up six ways from Sunday.”
Smiling, Levi studied the tattoo a few seconds longer. He leaned forward and very carefully grazed his lips against the bandage. Dominic shivered, exhaling one shuddering breath.
Levi looked up at him. “I am.”
Dominic raised an eyebrow.
“My beloved’s,” Levi said softly.
“So am I,” said Dominic, brushing his fingers along Levi’s cheekbone.
They kissed again, more urgently this time, twining around each other as if they couldn’t get close enough. In that moment, everything in Levi’s life was perfect, his happiness complete.
He pulled back just enough to speak against Dominic’s mouth. “Take me to our bedroom.”
“Uh-oh, Big Man on Campus alert,” Justine Aubrey said as Dominic entered the break room at McBride Investigations later that week.
The half-dozen people in the room exploded into whistles and catcalls. Waving them off, Dominic set his mug beneath the single-cup coffeemaker and dropped in a pod of dark roast. “All right, guys, take it down a notch.”
“Seriously, Dom,” said one of the firm’s receptionists. “Hammond & Cochran has been searching for Gary Booker for six months, and you found him in four days. How’d you do it?”
He gave her a sly wink that had her blushing down at her sandwich. “Trade secret.”
It wasn’t, really. But flushing out Booker—a missing witness in a multimillion-dollar class action lawsuit—had required an exhausting, complicated scheme involving a flower shop, a Persian rug, and a speedboat, and he was not getting into that before he’d even had lunch.
Aubrey bumped her shoulder against his arm. She’d supervised his first time in the field with McBride, and he had the sense that she took his success or failure personally. “You’ve been on a real hot streak lately. Cases are toppling like dominos.”
Yeah, it’s amazing what I can accomplish when I focus my time and energy on work instead of gambling.
“Just having a run of good luck, I guess,” he said.
His coffee had finished brewing when Kate McBride herself popped her head into the break room. “Heard you were in here, Russo,” she said in her hoarse smoker’s voice. “You ready for another case?”
He poured a generous helping of cream into his coffee. “Sure.”
“I’ll send the client your way at two. Big payout with this one, but it’s a sensitive case that needs to be handled delicately.”
“Understood.” Dominic dumped three packets of sugar into his mug, followed by some hazelnut syrup for good measure.
“You’re going to end up with diabetes,” said McBride.
He grinned and took a long, exaggerated sip.
Once alone in his office, Dominic stripped out of his jacket and loosened the knot in his tie. He reached for the sandwich he’d bought for lunch, only to clench his hands into fists when he noticed them shaking. He bowed his head and took several deep breaths.
His gambling cravings were usually triggered by feelings of worthlessness and guilt—something he was unpacking with the therapist Natasha had referred him to—but he also felt the urge when in a celebratory mood. Right now, he was flush with the adrenaline and triumph of having tricked Booker into revealing himself, elated by his colleagues’ admiration and his boss’s trust. All he wanted was to keep that high going in any way possible.
Lifting his head, he thought through the situation logically. He was safe at work. The software installed on his computer blocked all gambling-related websites, and he wouldn’t leave when he was expecting a client in an hour. Besides, he only had sixty dollars in his wallet. He’d destroyed his debit card and all his credit cards, along with his personal checks. The only way for him to access his bank account was through electronic transfer or by withdrawing cash in person, which threw another obstacle in his path to gambling.
It didn’t make it impossible, though. He was fine now, but what about when he left the office?
He glanced at the locked drawer in the bottom of his desk. Levi and Martine were expecting him for dinner tonight, during which they’d discuss the troubling research he’d hidden inside—research Levi had asked him to do because some of it wasn’t precisely legal. Dominic couldn’t miss that conversation, but he also didn’t want to jeopardize his recovery.
He tapped out a quick text to Levi. Going to be late for dinner. I need to go to a meeting after work.
Levi’s reply came less than a minute later. No problem. Call me if you need me.
Dominic smiled. It was always painful for him to admit to Levi when he was struggling, but that was his own hang-up. Levi never failed to offer immediate reassurance, and his support was consistently unwavering.
After ensuring that his sponsor, Judd, was planning to attend the Gamblers Anonymous meeting as well, Dominic was able to return his attention to where it belonged. He ate lunch while he wrapped up his report on the Booker case, and by the time his new client arrived, he was much steadier.
McBride had emailed him the basics, and a quick assessment of Miranda Cassidy confirmed his expectations. White, late thirties, attractive, and well put-together with an old-money aura.
He showed her into a chair and offered her a drink before settling behind his desk. As he smoothed out his tie, he caught her giving him a strange look.
“I’m sorry, you seem so familiar,” she said. “Have we met?”
This was happening more and more often lately. “No, but you may have seen me on the news. I’m Detective Levi Abrams’s partner.”
Recognition sparked in her eyes, followed by a flash of distaste that she wasn’t quite quick enough to suppress.
“Is that a problem?” he asked neutrally.
“Of course not,” she said with a thin-lipped smile. “I’m sure it has no bearing on your effectiveness as an investigator.”
Wow, thanks. Maintaining his pleasant expression, Dominic poised his pen over his notepad. “Ms. McBride told me you’re interested in having your ex-husband Conrad Bishop placed under surveillance?”
“Yes. I believe he’s using drugs again.”
“That was a problem during your marriage?”
“It’s why we divorced.” Cassidy crossed her legs primly at the knee. “The damage Conrad was doing to himself and his career was bad enough, but when he started getting high around our children, I was done.”
McBride’s email had mentioned the kids—two of them, ages nine and seven. “Does Mr. Bishop have any custody?”
She nodded. “While we were divorcing, he went to rehab and got clean, so the judge awarded him every other weekend. But if he is using again, that would violate the agreement—”
“Giving you sole custody?”
Dominic tapped his pen against the desk. He preferred to keep an open mind until he had all the facts, but Cassidy’s poorly veiled homophobia had already biased him. He couldn’t help wondering if this was retribution on her part, a ploy to snatch her kids away from their dad as payback for the failed marriage. People with addiction problems made easy targets for witch hunts.
“What makes you think Mr. Bishop has relapsed?”
“I was married to the man for almost a decade. I know when he’s hiding something. Plus, his friends and coworkers have all told me he’s been acting oddly for months—ducking their calls, canceling plans at the last minute without explanation. The last three weekends that he had the children, he hired a babysitter in the evenings and didn’t come home until the middle of the night. It’s the same pattern of behavior I noticed when we were married.”
She’d done some investigating on her own, then. “I’ll need a lot more information from you to set up a feasible surveillance operation,” Dominic said. “But before we dive into that, I want to make sure you understand that it’s impossible to prove a negative. If your ex-husband is abusing drugs again, I’ll be able to find hard evidence of that. But if he isn’t . . .” Dominic shrugged. The lack of proof drove some clients crazy, as they refused to accept that their target wasn’t guilty.
“He is,” Cassidy said with total confidence.
“All right. Let’s get started.”
“Police!” Levi flashed his badge as his suspect exited the 7-Eleven. “Hands up.”
The man, a Utopia gangbanger by the name of Lonnie Hale, took off running. Levi smiled—he’d been hoping the scumbag would give him a chance to stretch his legs.
Hale darted around the side of the building, parallel to the street, and through the back lot. He tossed his plastic shopping bag at Levi’s face as he ran; Levi dodged, gaining ground with every step.
The car wash behind the 7-Eleven was built on a slight incline. Hale leapt the guardrail, but lost his footing and rolled down the slope on the other side, right into the road. A horn blared as a car slammed to a halt, missing him by inches before he sprang back up and continued running.
Levi vaulted the guardrail smoothly and landed without a problem. He didn’t bother drawing his gun as he chased Hale across the road—he wouldn’t have fired even if there’d been nobody else around for miles, let alone in a civilian-populated area.
Besides, he didn’t need a gun to bring this asshole down. Hale was already flagging, winded by the sprint and limping from the tumble he’d taken. Levi caught up as they hopped a low wall into a derelict shopping plaza, and tackled Hale to the asphalt.
Hale swung at him, wild punches that Levi easily countered before flipping the man onto his stomach and pinning his skinny, tattooed arms at the small of his back. “Lonnie Hale, you’re under arrest for the murders of Victor Nuñez and Javier Ibarra. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”
Levi stood, hauling Hale upright.
“You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand these rights as I have read them to you?”
Hale scowled at Levi over his shoulder. “I don’t take orders from Jews,” he said, and spat in Levi’s face.
Levi’s hands tightened on Hale’s arm. Rage clawed at his heart and lungs, crashing against his rib cage like a feral animal desperate to be set free. It would be so satisfying to smash his fist into Hale’s face, feel the bones break, watch the blood spurt—
He replaced the violent fantasy with the image of a stop sign. He was in control of his anger; it wasn’t in control of him.
Levi wiped the saliva off his face with the sleeve of his suit jacket, then smiled coldly. Hale looked disappointed—little wonder, because a police brutality charge could have gone a long way toward having his case thrown out.
“Maybe you’ll enjoy taking orders from your cellmate,” Levi said.
“Sorry I’m late,” Levi said as he hurried into the conference room at the substation. “I got a hit on the gun used in that double homicide and traced it back to a Utopia foot soldier.”
Martine made a disgusted noise in the back of her throat. “Those freaks need to be shut down yesterday.”
Her assessment was met with murmured agreement throughout the room. Utopia, a neo-Nazi street gang turned private militia, grew larger and more brazen every week. Intent on spreading their venomous message while grabbing up resources, territory, and fresh recruits wherever they could, they were responsible for a string of violent hate crimes across the Las Vegas Valley. The two men Hale had killed had been members of Los Avispones, a Latino gang that was Utopia’s fiercest rival.
But while Utopia was a huge problem for the city, Levi’s involvement was limited to picking up their members when their murders crossed his desk. In the larger organizational sense, Utopia was the responsibility of either Gang Crimes or Organized Crime, depending on who was winning that turf war on any given day.
Levi’s focus belonged here, with the official task force created to address the city’s other largest threat—the Seven of Spades.
He’d been reinstated to the task force after being cleared of suspicion in the Seven of Spades’s crimes. The group was run by Dean Birndorf, captain of the Homicide Bureau; in addition to Levi and Martine, it included their sergeant James Wen and a cross-departmental selection of detectives, uniformed officers, and technical support staff. Leila Rashid and Special Agent Denise Marshall served as their liaisons to the DA’s office and the FBI, respectively.
Levi took the empty seat beside Martine. “What did I miss?” He couldn’t quite meet Leila’s eyes as he sat, but he felt her heavy gaze.
“Not much,” said Wen, who was as impeccably dressed and well-groomed as always. “We were just discussing the killer’s radio silence—no new murders, no phone calls, no messages, no contact of any kind for over a month now. It’s the longest the Seven of Spades has remained inactive since framing Keith Chapman.”
“And it’s all thanks to Levi’s epic bitch-slap.” Martine elbowed his side.
Levi agreed that his reaction to Carolyn Royce’s murder had rattled the Seven of Spades—but whether they’d withdrawn simply to lick their wounds or to gear up for some sensational vengeful return, he couldn’t say. He remained on high alert regardless.
“How are things proceeding with the ketamine angle?” Denise asked.
“No developments,” said Levi. “But it’s kind of like looking for one specific drop of water in a lake.”
The Seven of Spades used ketamine to drug their victims into a dissociative paralysis before slitting their throats. From the beginning, Levi had believed the killer obtained the drug from a legitimate source. For one thing, illicit sales of ketamine were small-scale, not the kind of operations that would allow for stockpiling. Legal channels were more reliable, involved far less risk of exposure, and carried no need to tangle with criminal elements.
The problem was the sheer number of people who had legitimate access to ketamine. In addition to countless individual practitioners, the drug flowed from manufacturers and distributors to pharmacies, hospitals, clinics, teaching institutions, and laboratories. The Seven of Spades could be getting their hands on it anywhere along that supply chain.
Levi’s gut told him the Seven of Spades would prefer the end of the chain, where there were fewer moving parts and they’d have greater control over their access. With the cooperation of the DEA’s Diversion Control Division, he’d spent the past year reviewing the licenses of every practitioner registered to dispense Schedule III controlled substances, beginning within the Las Vegas city limits and expanding outward in a circular geographic pattern. One by one, he’d researched every individual for criminal backgrounds, ties to personnel in the LVMPD and DA’s office, unusual business practices, and other red flags.
In the process, he’d discovered several small, unrelated diversion operations, and he’d passed that information along to the appreciative DEA. But as far as the Seven of Spades was concerned, he’d had no luck.
“Do you need more personnel on it?” Birndorf asked.
Levi nodded. “That would be helpful. It’s time-consuming work, and pretty tedious.”
“Sounds like it’d be right up your alley,” said Jonah Gibbs, a ruddy-faced officer with a hot temper that rivaled Levi at his worst.
“Thank you for volunteering, Officer,” Wen said.
As Gibbs spluttered indignantly, Levi tried to hide his dismay. Having Gibbs on this would only slow him down, because he’d have to double-check every single thing Gibbs did.
“You can have all the people you need.” Birndorf gestured to the massive board on the wall, which held brief profiles of the task force’s top suspects. “Make sure you’re cross-referencing all your results with the suspect pool.”
“Of course, sir.” Levi exchanged a quick sideways glance with Martine, but broke the eye contact before he could give anything away.
The task force’s suspect pool was based on FBI agent Rohan Chaudhary’s criminal profile of the Seven of Spades, further culled through personal histories, interviews, tips from the Seven of Spades hotline, and other investigative techniques. But Levi and Martine both knew that cross-referencing the ketamine investigation with that list would be a waste of time—the real top suspects weren’t anywhere on the board.
In fact, half of them were sitting in this very room.
“I’m glad you called,” Judd said to Dominic. All around them, the room was filled with quiet chatter, rustling, and scraping chairs as the GA meeting broke up.
“I’m glad you could make it,” said Dominic.
“That’s what I’m here for.” Judd was a big guy, as broad across as Dominic though not quite as tall, with a wild black beard and a taste for leather vests. “Did you tell Levi you were struggling today?”
“How’d he take it?”
“Same as always—calm, supportive.”
Judd eyed Dominic shrewdly. “But you still hated telling him, right?”
Dominic heaved himself out of his chair, folded it up, and carried it over to stack with the rest against the wall of the church rec room. “You don’t understand. I know he loves me, and I know he supports my recovery. We broke up because I lied and manipulated him, not because I relapsed. But Levi is the strongest person I’ve ever met, and it’s embarrassing to have to expose this weakness to him over and over. There’s always a part of me that’s worried this will be the time he gets sick of it and decides he’s had enough.”
“Addiction is a disease, not a weakness,” Judd reminded him. “From what you’ve told me, Levi understands that better than you do. And you said he’s got his own issues with anger management. There are some similarities there, so he’s in a better position to empathize than most people. All he wants to see is that you’re putting in the work—which you have been.”
“I know all of that intellectually,” Dominic said. “But I don’t feel it yet.”
Judd clapped his shoulder. “You’ll get there. Just keep working the steps.”
They parted a few minutes later, and Dominic headed home with his gambling cravings in check. He slung his messenger bag over one shoulder as he jumped out of his pickup truck and then climbed the stairs to the new apartment.
Rebel rushed to greet him the moment he stepped inside, her wagging tail swaying her hundred-pound body as she butted up against his legs. Dominic knelt to scruff her ears and kiss the tip of her nose.
“Hey, sweetheart. Did you miss me?”
He laughed when she licked his face. After her despondent behavior that first day, he’d worried about how the move would affect her—but she’d bounced back the very next day, returning to her usual cheerful, energetic self without a hint of distress. She’d been loving her explorations of the new complex, immediately taking to the agility course in the fancy on-site dog park.
“We’re in the spare room!” Levi called out.
Dominic walked through the open door to find Levi stretched out on the carpet and Martine sitting at the desk chair, both of them surrounded by take-out containers of Thai food. His heart swelled with the same warmth he’d felt every night this week upon seeing Levi safe and comfortable in their home. He was sure the novelty would wear off eventually, but he’d never lived with a romantic partner before, and he was enjoying every moment of this honeymoon phase.
The room’s double-door armoire stood open to its full extension, exposing walls papered with photographs, maps, and newspaper articles, as well as a shelf of overflowing folders crammed with their Seven of Spades research. Levi had been conducting this independent investigation on his own last year until Dominic discovered it over the summer and offered his help; they’d looped in Martine after Carolyn Royce’s murder.
Once Dominic had greeted them both, Levi said, “I put your food in the refrigerator.”
“Thanks, but I’m good for now.” Dominic dropped his bag on the floor and settled next to Levi; Rebel cuddled up to him, and he slung an arm around her. “I had a few too many doughnuts at the meeting.”
He left it at that. Martine was like a sister to Levi, and well aware of Dominic’s compulsive gambling—but Dominic found the issue difficult enough to discuss with Levi, let alone anyone else.
“How’s your side project coming along?” Martine asked.
“Finished, actually.” Dominic watched as Levi stiffened and dropped his fork into his panang curry. There was a reason Dominic hadn’t shared that news in advance—Levi would have stewed in his anxiety about it all day.
Dominic withdrew a thick stack of folders from his messenger bag and passed them to Levi, who hurriedly wiped his hands on a paper towel before accepting them.
“You were right,” said Dominic. “Leila doesn’t have a concrete alibi for a single one of the Seven of Spades murders. There are a few where she has a vague alibi, but those could all go either way. And during the week in December when Grant Sheppard was murdered in Philadelphia, she was out of town—ostensibly with her family in St. Louis.”
Levi closed his eyes for a second, then leapt to his feet, shoved the folders into Martine’s hands, and began pacing the room. Martine and Dominic looked at each other.
She and Levi had asked Dominic to investigate Leila’s movements and behavior over the past year because legal access to much of that information would have required warrants—which would have alerted Leila to their suspicions. Thanks to his years as a bounty hunter, Dominic knew how to subtly break the rules, and didn’t mind doing so when necessary.
“In Leila’s defense, she wouldn’t have an alibi for most things,” Martine said. “Her job has little oversight, she lives alone, and she has few social ties.”
Levi turned around. “You’re not making her sound less like a serial killer.”
“You were the one who raised her as a suspect in the first place!”
“Levi,” Dominic interrupted gently. “The reason you had to start your own investigation last year was because the LVMPD has never been on the right track when it comes to the Seven of Spades. That’s still true today. You’ve said yourself that the task force is concentrating on all the wrong suspects because they’re ignoring one of the most vital parts of the profile—the killer’s personal connection to you.”
Levi pressed his lips together. “The profile says the killer respects and admires me. That doesn’t necessarily mean I have a relationship with them.”
“But it’s the likeliest scenario.” Martine had spread the folders out on the desk, and she leafed through them as she spoke. “The intensity of their focus on you, the personal details they know, the way they’ve repeatedly risked exposure to help you—that’s not the behavior of a person who only knows you from afar.”
“I didn’t even meet Leila until months after the Seven of Spades’s first round of murders.”
“It doesn’t matter. I consulted with Rohan about this—he says that even if the Seven of Spades was only initially drawn to you because you were one of the lead detectives on the first murders, the connection they formed with you during the case would have driven them to establish a relationship with you under their real identity.”
Expelling a noisy breath, Levi slumped against the wall. Dominic wanted to hug him, but he knew Levi wouldn’t want to be touched in this mood, so he stayed on the floor and stroked his hand through Rebel’s fur instead. He couldn’t begin to imagine how painful it must be for Levi to put his friends and colleagues under a microscope like this.
Dominic pointed to one of the armoire’s doors, which held the paper listing their top five suspects for the Seven of Spades, none of whom the task force had considered. They all fit the official profile, though: able-bodied adults, intelligent and well educated, working in law enforcement or related fields in positions which allowed freedom of movement throughout the day, each with a personal connection to Levi, and all but one with a history of significant trauma. Further, none of them had been present for any of the Seven of Spades’s phone calls, nor the live murder of Carolyn Royce.
“We put together our own suspect pool weeks ago because we knew the LVMPD was going about it all wrong. Maybe we should go through the top suspects again, break them down individually.”
Levi nodded, pushed himself off the wall, and resumed pacing. “Going from least to most likely, then. Kelly Marin.”
Martine swallowed a mouthful of pad thai. “She was positioning herself as your protégé when the first murders occurred. She was involved with and interested in the Seven of Spades case from the beginning, and most importantly, she leaked the story to the Review-Journal after being explicitly ordered not to.”
“She’s also remained loyal to you ever since, including harassing me at your request.” Dominic couldn’t quite keep a sour note out of his tone.
Levi shot him a weary glance. “You said you forgave me for that.”
“Plus,” Martine said, “she was the responding officer when you found Quintana’s body in your apartment, even though we found out later that there was another unit closer at the time.”
“Counterarguments?” Dominic asked.
“She’s too young,” Levi said immediately. “I don’t buy that she’s had enough experience to leave flawless crime scenes or know her way around the surveillance equipment used to spy on us, let alone how to finesse security systems or hire a contract killer like Nick Bryce. And do we really think she has the emotional maturity to be so smoothly manipulative?”
Dominic agreed that it was kind of a reach. The primary reasons Kelly was under consideration were the news leak and Levi’s mentorship. “She’s also the only one on the list who never experienced a traumatic event, at least as far as we know. That means no trigger to become the Seven of Spades, according to Rohan.”
They knew far more about their suspects’ histories with trauma than they should have, thanks to Internal Affairs detective Valeria Montoya. She’d done extensive background research on personnel throughout the LVMPD and DA’s office before turning the information—most of which had been well-guarded secrets—over to Levi. That insider knowledge was one of the things that gave Levi and Martine a leg up on the task force.
“Moving on, then.” Martine pushed her food aside and scrubbed her napkin over her mouth. “Sergeant Wen.”
Still striding restlessly around the room, Levi said, “He’s been uncharacteristically heavy-handed about the Seven of Spades from the start. He refused to hear me out when I argued that Keith had been framed, he dismissed the card the killer left in my hotel room as a practical joke, and he suspended me when he found out about my side investigation, all without ever giving me a fair chance to state my case. Then, when the Seven of Spades was trying to isolate me from everyone last month, Wen was the one who kicked me off the task force and later suspended me again.”
Dominic kept the ball rolling. “We know for a fact he was aware of the assault on Sergei Volkov’s compound in advance, which means he would have had plenty of time to set up the Seven of Spades’s intervention. And after that whole clusterfuck, he put in a good word for me with McBride, which ended up saving my job.”
“He was shot by friendly fire while serving with the Marines, and a superior officer betrayed him by trying to cover it up,” Martine said. “Could speak to motive.”
Levi shook his head. “Not really. That officer was later discovered and court-martialed, so justice was served in that case. And honestly, Sergeant Wen? I just can’t see it.”
Dominic sighed; Levi had said that about every suspect they’d considered at one point or another. “Levi . . .”
“I’m serious. Wen is too neat. I don’t think he’s obsessed with cleanliness to the point of mental illness, but he hates messes and he always needs to have everything just so. The way the Seven of Spades kills people results in a ton of messy blood splatter. This may sound weird, but I think Wen would be too grossed out to murder people that way.”
“That’s . . .” Martine paused, her brow furrowing. “A good point, actually.”
Deferring to their greater familiarity with Wen, Dominic said, “Okay. How about Montoya?”
“She was one of the IA detectives investigating Keith for police brutality,” Levi said. “She would have known he’d make a perfect fall guy.”
Martine hummed agreement. “She attended Rohan’s briefing on the Seven of Spades’s profile even though the department hadn’t requested an IA presence, and she took it upon herself to get involved in the case for reasons she hasn’t fully explained. Giving you her research could have been a mind game or a way of connecting to you—or both.”
“Plus, we know from the things she uncovered that she has suspicious access to some highly protected information, including your assault in college,” Dominic pointed out. “If she’s the Seven of Spades, researching that could have been how she realized there was more to the story and discovered the bribe that kept your attackers from being identified.”
Levi made a face, his shoulders twitching like he was physically shrugging off the memories. “Most damning, she was assigned to my IA investigation when I was suspended, and the afternoon of my hearing—the afternoon Carolyn Royce was murdered—Montoya was held up on another case. She knew exactly when I would be at the substation, and she managed to be conveniently absent.”
“Arguments against?” Martine asked.
“We’ve never had much of a relationship. Before the murders, we were distant colleagues at best. Now, I consider her an ally, but we’re definitely not friends. I can’t believe that she has strong feelings about me one way or the other.”
“Let’s table her for now, then,” said Dominic. “That brings us to Jonah Gibbs.”
“Fuck, where to start? He’s been lurking around the fringes of this case since day one.” Levi counted his points off on his fingers while he spoke. “Gibbs is the one who named the Seven of Spades, for God’s sake. He’s been present at multiple Seven of Spades crime scenes. He was the first responder when Drew Barton attacked me, even though my hotel was nowhere near his usual beat. And he was outside the Regional Justice Center when Barton was shot, because somehow, his schedule always seems to line up with mine.”
Martine picked up the thread from there. “He’s expressed empathy with the Seven of Spades on numerous occasions. He was relieved when Carmen Rivera escaped custody after being revealed as a mole. And the day after the Seven of Spades mass-murdered those Slavic Collective human traffickers—the only time their victims put up serious resistance—he came to work with significant facial injuries.”
“His explanation for that was legitimate, though,” Dominic said. “I checked it out myself. He was assaulted during a domestic disturbance call.”
“He could have gone into that call already injured and deliberately provoked the guy into hitting him.”
“Hmm. I can find out.” Dominic made a note for himself on his phone. Rebel, annoyed he’d stopped petting her, bumped her head into his shoulder and then leaned her considerable weight against his side.
“As far as motive,” Martine continued, “we know from Montoya’s research that Gibbs and his mother were physically abused by his father throughout his childhood. He was arrested as a juvenile for assaulting his father with a deadly weapon in her defense. And as a police officer, he’s been reprimanded many times for using excessive force in the line of duty.”
Levi’s pacing had slowed to more of an idle walk as he sank deeper into thought. “My biggest misgiving about Gibbs is his personality. He’s impulsive and tactless with no self-control—the antithesis of the Seven of Spades, at least under normal circumstances.”
“We’ve discussed the possibility of that being an act.” Dominic absently rubbed his new tattoo through his shirt. It was healing well, but it itched like a bastard.
“Okay, but that’s pure speculation. We don’t have any evidence to support it.”
“I’m also doubtful that he’d be so publicly empathetic to the Seven of Spades if he were the killer,” said Martine. “Although . . . maybe that’s part of the fun? Or a way to throw us off the scent?”
Levi came to a full stop, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. “Besides, Gibbs doesn’t even like me, so why would he have focused on me like this?”
Dominic and Martine both stared at him.
“What?” he said, blinking back at them.
“Levi,” Martine said slowly, “Gibbs worships you. It’s why he’s always hanging around you, getting in your face, deliberately annoying you so you’ll pay attention to him. You’re his hero, his role model; you always have been. In fact, if he were at all inclined toward guys, I’d think he has a massive crush on you.”
Levi looked to Dominic for confirmation.
“She’s right. Gibbs’s attitude toward you is one of the strongest arguments in favor of him being the Seven of Spades, not against it.” And while Dominic had never gotten the vibe that Gibbs was sexually attracted to Levi, he wouldn’t have been shocked to learn otherwise.
His eyebrows drawing together, Levi opened his mouth—but closed it a few seconds later without saying anything and began pacing again, his movements even more agitated this time.
Dominic frowned, watching the way Levi’s shoulders were creeping up toward his ears and his hands were flexing open and shut. Escalating stress could result in a rage-fueled outburst if Levi lost control of himself.
Martine hesitated before saying, “Finally, we have Leila.”
“I can’t,” said Levi, his voice tight.
“Then I will.” Martine’s tone was calm and matter-of-fact. “Leila moved to Las Vegas last March, one month before the murders began, right after losing her father to a horrific hate crime. Her position in the DA’s office gives her access to all of the information needed for victim selection, as well as the knowledge required to leave pristine crime scenes. She’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met, more than capable of pulling off every single one of the Seven of Spades’s feats.”
Though Dominic hated to add to Levi’s distress, this needed to be discussed. “She’s also a highly trained fighter, by far the most proficient of everyone on the list. She’s no stranger to violence, and she knows how to handle herself.”
“She’s misanthropic, perpetually bored, and totally lacking in empathy for the Seven of Spades’s victims,” Martine said. “She stood with us at Judge Harding’s crime scene, looked right at the gruesome way he’d been set up, and didn’t even blink. She actually gave us the reason the killer had targeted him. And her essential personality—”
Levi spun around. “Is a lot like mine?”
“Let’s just say it. Rohan theorized that the Seven of Spades doesn’t just admire me, but that they identify with me on a deep level. And after—”
Levi cut himself off as Dominic’s pulse slammed into overdrive. Don’t look at me, Dominic thought as he continued petting Rebel casually. Whatever you do, do not look at me.
Although deception had never been Levi’s strong suit, he managed to keep his eyes off Dominic, dropping his gaze to the ground instead and clearing his throat. Martine raised her eyebrows.
Dominic and Levi both knew the full extent of how profoundly the Seven of Spades identified with Levi. The killer had recently lured him into a trap in an attempt to force him into murdering Scott West, one of the men who’d attacked him in college, under the belief that such an act would cement their connection and bring them closer together. But Martine was in the dark about the entire incident—because in the end, it’d been Dominic who’d killed West.
“Well, let’s just say I believe it.” Levi lifted his head as he recovered from his near slip, and Dominic’s heart rate returned to normal. “Of all the people on the list, Leila is the one I have the most in common with, the one most likely to identify with me.”
Martine shrugged. “She does identify with you. She insinuated herself into your life right before Barton was murdered—”
“She was assigned to a case we were working!”
“How do we know she didn’t ask for that case? She created a connection with you by telling you she believed Keith had been framed. She initiated a friendship, spent months bonding with you, and came to your rescue in Boulder City when you were arrested.”
“I’ve been delving deep into Leila’s life the past couple of weeks,” Dominic said. “She’s lived here for a year now, and you are the only person she has a significant emotional attachment to outside her family.”
Levi clenched his jaw and looked away, shoving his hands into his pockets.
“What’s your counterpoint, Levi?” Martine asked.
“She’s my friend,” he said quietly.
Martine lowered her head. Dominic gave Rebel one final pat, got to his feet, and tugged Levi’s hands free of his pockets, squeezing them until Levi met his eyes.
“Any way this turns out is going to suck,” he said. “Big-time. There’s no answer to the Seven of Spades’s identity that isn’t going to hurt.”
“I know.” Levi stepped closer to Dominic and laced their fingers together. “So what’s our next move? All of our evidence is circumstantial; it’s not anywhere near enough to make an arrest. If Leila is the Seven of Spades and she figures out we’re on to her before we have all our ducks in a row, that’s game over.”
“I can put her under surveillance. Home, car, office, the whole nine yards.”
“Ah, ah!” Martine said, clapping her hands over her ears.
Dominic raised his eyebrows. “You’re sitting in front of folders full of information I obtained illegally.”
She grimaced. “I’d like to maintain at least the illusion of plausible deniability.”
“A lot of the surveillance you’d obtain would be illegal, too,” said Levi. “It couldn’t provide the basis for a warrant and wouldn’t be admissible in court.”
“It doesn’t need to. It just has to point us in the right direction.”
Releasing Dominic’s hands, Levi moved a few feet away and chewed on his lower lip. Dominic could see the war waging inside him as clearly as if he’d asked the question aloud: Did these drastic, unprecedented circumstances make it acceptable for him to violate his oath to uphold the law?
Dominic, who was always in favor of rule-breaking in the interests of protecting innocent lives, kept his mouth shut. He wasn’t a cop, and he didn’t think like one. Levi’s and Martine’s perspective on this was vastly different from his own.
“All right,” Levi said at length. “I don’t see any other way. This has to end.”
Dominic nodded. “I’ll put everything in place tomorrow. And I’ll start checking Gibbs’s history for alibis for the murders as well.”
“I’ll focus part of the ketamine investigation on Leila. There’s a chance she could be getting the drugs in St. Louis instead of here.”
The conversation turned to technical matters as the three of them planned the next steps in their rogue investigation. Levi held himself together well, but Dominic could see the stress in the lines around his mouth and eyes, in the stiff set of his muscles that was sure to leave him with a terrible backache later. Though Dominic would do anything he could to help Levi through this, the only thing that would truly solve the problem was having the Seven of Spades behind bars.
Levi was right. This had to end.
Or, check your local library.
Word Count: ~100,000
Page Count: ~382
Cover By: Garrett Leigh
Series: Seven of Spades
Release Date: 03/11/2019
Release Date: 03/11/2019