Cash Plays (Seven of Spades, #3)

Cash Plays by Cordelia Kingsbridge
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-638-5
eBook release: 
Jun 4, 2018
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-637-8
Print release: 
Jun 4, 2018
Word count: 
90,500
Page count: 
351
Cover by: 

This title is #3 of the Seven of Spades series.

Ebook $4.99
Print $18.99   $15.19 (20% off!)
Print and Ebook $23.98   $16.79 (30% off!)

In this game, the stakes are life or death.

The Seven of Spades is back with a vengeance—the vigilante serial killer has resumed their murderous crusade, eluding the police at every turn. But a bloodthirsty killer isn’t the only threat facing Sin City. A devious saboteur is wreaking havoc in Las Vegas’s criminal underworld, and the entire city seems to be barreling toward an all-out gang war.

As Detective Levi Abrams is pushed ever closer to his breaking point, his control over his dangerous rage slips further every day. His relationship with PI Dominic Russo should be a source of comfort, but Dominic is secretly locked in his own downward spiral, confronting a nightmare he can’t bear to reveal.

Las Vegas is floundering. Levi and Dominic’s bond is cracking along the seams. And the Seven of Spades is still playing to win. How many bad hands can Levi and Dominic survive before it’s game over?

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

gambling addiction relapse

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

Levi jerked awake with a full-body shudder. He lay still, breathing hard, resisting the creeping tendrils of the nightmare that tried to follow him out of sleep.

Once he felt less disoriented, he sat up and raked a hand through his sweat-damp curls. The hotel room was quiet and dark, but enough light filtered through the curtains for him to see that everything was as it should be. Beside him, his boyfriend Dominic didn’t stir; he was a heavy sleeper, and not much would wake him before he was ready.

This wasn’t the first time Levi had been grateful for that.

At the foot of the bed, however, lay Dominic’s dog Rebel, a hundred-pound German Shepherd–Rottweiler mix whose notice was more difficult to escape. She lifted her head off her paws and thumped her long tail against the bed.

“It’s okay,” Levi whispered. “Go to sleep.”

His heart was still racing, and the horror of the dream clung to him even as the details began to fade. He rolled his neck and shoulders to release the tension and wondered if he’d be able to go back to sleep tonight. The clock on the nightstand read half past three.

Letting out a low, uneasy whine, Rebel squirmed up the bed on her belly until she could butt her head against his hand. He sank his fingers into her fur, scratching her ears and neck, and his pulse calmed a bit. Few things in life were as comforting as petting a dog.

“Good girl. Everything’s fine.”

She sighed as he scritched the sweet spot behind her right ear. Then she tilted her head toward Dominic, who was out cold, and looked back at Levi.

He realized what she was about to do and opened his mouth to object, but it was too late. She let out three quiet, huffing barks before he could stop her. Rebel was a trained personal protection dog, and that sequence of barks in that tone was her conditioned signal to alert Dominic to trouble while he was sleeping.

Waking with the sudden and total alertness of a veteran soldier sensing danger, Dominic rolled over and sat up. “What’s wrong?” he asked in a voice that held not a trace of sleep.

“Nothing,” Levi said, irritated. “Rebel overreacted.”

Dominic’s eyes traveled over them both. One of his best and worst qualities, depending on the day, was his incredible perceptiveness; a few seconds later he said, “Did you have that nightmare again?”

Levi shrugged. “It’s not the same nightmare. Just . . . variations on a theme.”

Rubbing a hand over Levi’s bare back, Dominic leaned in and kissed his shoulder. “You weren’t gonna wake me up, were you?”

“Why would I wake you up in the middle of the night because I had a bad dream?”

“So I could take care of you.”

Levi flinched; he couldn’t help it. “I don’t need—”

“Everyone needs to be taken care of sometimes,” Dominic said firmly. “You do it for me when . . . well, you know.”

He knew exactly what Dominic meant; it had happened just a few days ago. They’d come out to Mt. Charleston to celebrate Dominic’s licensure as a private investigator with a week of hiking the challenging trails in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. The first night, they’d gone to the hotel bar, unaware that it contained entire banks of video poker and blackjack games.

As a compulsive gambler in recovery, the unexpected exposure to such an intense trigger had sent Dominic into a tailspin. Levi had spent the rest of the night alternating between talking him down and very energetically distracting him.

“That’s different,” said Levi.

“How?” When Levi didn’t respond—because it wasn’t different, not really—Dominic said, “When you tell me in the morning that you had a terrible nightmare, and I realize I was fast asleep while you were lying wide-awake next to me for hours, it makes me feel like an asshole.”

Of course it did, because Dominic was pathologically altruistic, and being unable to help in any situation drove him right up the wall.

“Fine,” Levi said. “Next time, I’ll shake you awake at ass o’clock in the morning so you can be just as miserable and sleep-deprived as I am.”

Dominic smiled, as unfazed by Levi’s brusque sarcasm as ever. “That’s all I ask.” He pressed his lips to Levi’s temple, said, “I’ll get you some water,” and threw the covers back.

Before Dominic left the bed, Levi caught his arm and gave him a long, lingering kiss, trying to communicate with his body the things he was so bad at saying out loud. After they parted, Dominic nuzzled the side of his face for a few seconds and then stood.

Stroking Rebel’s head, Levi watched Dominic move around the room, naked and unselfconscious. He was dizzyingly attractive in a rugged, salt-of-the-earth way, a fascinating study in contrasts. The intimidating effect of his brawny, six-five frame was undercut by the sweet smile that left Levi breathless; his square jaw and broken nose were softened by the warmth in his eyes. Levi couldn’t look away.

¬¬Dominic crouched by the minifridge, giving Levi a view of the vibrant Ranger crest tattoo splashed across his chiseled upper back. Then he turned with a bottle of water in hand, and the view from the front was even better. If it weren’t for the stubborn remnants of his nightmare, Levi’s thoughts would be running in a decidedly filthy direction.

“My face is up here,” Dominic teased as he returned to the bed.

Levi snorted and accepted the bottle. “Yes, I can see you’re very offended.”

Chuckling, Dominic slung an arm around Levi’s shoulders and snuggled close while Levi sipped some water. “Do you want to talk about the dream?” he asked after a minute.

Levi shook his head. Since childhood, he’d had a particularly intense fear of being trapped and hunted by an enemy in a situation he couldn’t escape, even though nothing like that had ever happened to him. It was so bad he couldn’t read novels or watch horror movies that capitalized on the trope: stories where the protagonists were stuck in a house with a killer or lost in the woods or so on.

For over two decades, those nightmares had come and gone in waves, sometimes plaguing him for weeks at a time before disappearing altogether for months. The dreams had been especially bad in his early twenties after he’d been jumped and beaten half to death by a group of men in the parking lot of a gay bar. They’d gotten even worse than that over the past three months, ever since the serial killer Seven of Spades had resumed wreaking their bloody wrath throughout the Valley.

“Thanks for the water,” Levi said, handing Dominic the bottle. Dominic drank from it as well before setting it aside, then laid him down and spooned up behind him.

Rather than return to the foot of the bed, Rebel stretched out on Levi’s other side so he could curl up around her. Dominic’s arm rested on his, their fingers laced together over the soft fur of her belly, and Levi’s muscles unlocked as he took comfort from their combined warmth.

He didn’t have Dominic’s brute strength, but in the face of a violent threat, he was just as capable of defending himself—perhaps more so. Yet resting in Dominic’s arms always created a sense of safety he couldn’t quite explain.

Dominic kissed the back of Levi’s head, and in no time at all, his breathing evened out as he fell asleep again. Closing his eyes, Levi soaked up the pleasure of his embrace. It would have been perfect if not for the nagging guilt in the back of his mind, because he hadn’t told Dominic the whole truth about his nightmare.

Though the dream itself was never the same, the emotions it provoked always were: the heart-pounding terror of fleeing an unseen enemy, of endlessly searching for a place to hide and knowing there was no escape. It always spoke to one of Levi’s most deep-seated fears and ruthlessly exploited it.

Except tonight, Levi hadn’t been the prey.

He’d been the hunter.

* * * * * * *

“Dominic!” Levi called over the sound of the TV. “What’s taking you so long?”

Dominic opened the bathroom door and leaned out, a towel wrapped around his waist. “This coming from the man who took a twenty-five-minute shower the other day?”

After a long pause in which Levi contemplated Dominic’s wet chest, he said, “I did not.”

“You did. I timed you.”

Levi rolled his eyes. “I promised Adriana I’d be back in time to train her tonight. I don’t want to be late.”

“Baby, it’s at most a fifty-minute drive. We have hours. There’s plenty of time.” With that, Dominic went back into the bathroom and shut the door.

Levi sighed and turned to the neatly packed suitcases on the bed. It wasn’t that he wanted to leave. This had been a great vacation, his and Dominic’s first as a couple. Leaving meant going back to a job he no longer enjoyed. It meant facing the fact that his parents were visiting next weekend, and while he was looking forward to seeing them, he was nervous about them meeting Dominic.

All things being equal, he’d rather stay in the mountains forever. But since they couldn’t do that, he was itching to get the return to reality over with as soon as possible.

He looked over at Rebel, who was standing with her front paws up on the windowsill so she could watch the people walking around three stories below. Her eyes tracked every movement with concentrated laser focus, her whole world narrowed to this moment in time, no regrets for the past or worries about the future weighing her down.

“You have no idea how lucky you are,” he said to her.

She barely spared him a glance before resuming her vital observations.

A blast of attention-grabbing music sounded from the TV, which Levi had tuned to a local news station. “We go now to Janice Bevilacqua,” said the anchor, “who has a special update on Las Vegas’s very own serial killer, the Seven of Spades.”

Levi stiffened and spun around. The anchor exchanged greetings with a blandly attractive reporter being filmed in front of the headquarters of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department before she fixed her gaze on the camera with an air of studied, professional concern.

“Most of our viewers will remember when the Seven of Spades first appeared on the scene back in April,” she said. “The mysterious killer, who identifies himself as a vigilante targeting wrongdoers who have escaped justice, went on a two-week spree during which he took five victims and communicated directly with the police force on multiple occasions. At the time, the murders were attributed to disgraced former police officer Keith Chapman, who unfortunately took his own life.”

The feed switched to a panning shot of the front steps of the Regional Justice Center in Downtown Las Vegas.

Over the image, the reporter said, “The case was reopened on August first when Drew Barton was killed by a sniper outside the Regional Justice Center during a press conference. Our own Scott Griffith was at the scene with a camera crew, but we won’t be showing that graphic footage this afternoon.”

Levi sat down hard on the foot of the bed. He’d been at the scene as well, mere inches away from Barton and at the perfect angle to be sprayed with blood and bone fragments when Barton’s head exploded. It had been all over his face, in his mouth, drenching the front of his shirt. He’d had to wash it out of his hair afterward.

“Drew Barton was being tried for the alleged murder of his wife, and had been accused of attempting to cast suspicion in the Seven of Spades’s direction. The Seven of Spades took immediate and very public credit for his death.”

The image transitioned to a recording of the ad kiosks the Seven of Spades had hijacked to send their message—a three-dimensional seven of spades card and the words ALL BETS ARE OFF—before returning to the reporter.

“Since that date, the serial killer has continued to operate throughout the Las Vegas Valley, though at a slower rate than his earlier spree. Currently there are eleven murders for which the Seven of Spades has claimed responsibility. From our communications with the LVMPD, it appears that there have been no new leads in the case and no progress toward catching this elusive killer, even after months of investigative work.”

“Ugh,” Levi said, burying his face in his hands.

The camera cut back to the anchor at his desk. “Is it true that crime has apparently dropped in Las Vegas over the past few months?”

The reporter nodded. “According to the LVMPD, violent crime has in fact declined by seven percent since August first. However, experts caution that this may also be linked to a corresponding decrease in tourism that has the mayor and the city council very concerned. We’ve been told today that the LVMPD has finally requested assistance from the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, and are expecting an agent later this week to help with profiling the Seven of Spades. Our inside source hints that Homicide sergeant James Wen was extremely resistant to this action and only agreed to it after intense political pressure from higher-ups.”

Levi frowned at the television. He didn’t know who their “inside source” was, but they’d gotten that right—Wen, his immediate superior, had tried to keep the FBI out of this case as long as possible. Levi wasn’t exactly thrilled about the prospect of some special agent swanning in from Quantico to tell them all how much they sucked at their jobs, either.

“One of the things that makes the Seven of Spades so intriguing is his continued communication with the police,” the reporter said. “The killer appears to have a special fondness for one of the lead investigators in the case, Detective Levi Abrams, frequently calling him on the phone and leaving messages addressed to him at crime scenes. Detective Abrams has repeatedly refused our requests for an interview—”

Levi snatched up the remote control and pegged it at the TV. It cracked hard against the screen and clattered to the floor.

“Hey,” Dominic said sharply. Levi hadn’t even heard him come out of the bathroom—so much for situational awareness. “Relax. That’s not your TV, you know.”

Taking a deep breath, Levi propped his elbows on his knees and dropped his head into his hands. He heard Dominic walking around, and the sound from the TV cut off. Then Dominic knelt in front of him and tugged at his hands until he looked up.

“You have to stop watching this media coverage,” Dominic said.

With Levi sitting on the bed and Dominic kneeling on the floor, their eyes were just about level. “I didn’t do it on purpose,” said Levi. “I didn’t know they were going to do a story on the Seven of Spades. But they found out about the agent from the NCAVC.”

Dominic squeezed his hands. “This could be a good thing. Maybe the profiler will crack the case wide open.”

“As opposed to me, you mean. Because I’m the incompetent local cop who can’t catch a killer I’ve repeatedly spoken to on the phone.”

Instead of answering, Dominic tilted forward and touched his forehead to Levi’s. He hadn’t meant that, Levi knew—would never have even thought it. Serial killers like the Seven of Spades were notoriously difficult to pin down. They were careful, organized, extremely intelligent, and had no personal connection to their victims. It wasn’t Levi’s fault the killer was still at large.

But it felt like it was.

Dominic tipped Levi’s chin up and kissed him, soft and slow. Levi groaned into his mouth, threading his fingers through Dominic’s hair, and twitched when he felt Dominic’s hand working his belt open.

“What are you doing?” he murmured, though he wasn’t objecting.

“Relaxing you.” Dominic shuffled back a bit on his knees.

Levi glanced at the clock. “Checkout is at—”

“So we’ll break the rules,” Dominic said, and bent his head.

Levi wasn’t concerned with much else after that.

 

Chapter Two

Dominic zoomed down SR 157 in his pickup truck, descending Mt. Charleston toward the bustling city in the valley below. The windows were wide open to take advantage of the crisp late October air. Rebel sat on the bench seat between him and Levi, who was watching the glorious autumnal mountain scenery rush past.

Levi always reminded Dominic of a cat—prickly and independent, but fiercely loyal and affectionate once you earned his trust. His body was feline as well: lean and sleek and strong, not an inch of muscle wasted on his narrow frame. He had a sharp, masculine beauty, from his cool-gray eyes to cheekbones so prominent Dominic could almost cut his thumb on their edges. He was still growing out his curly black hair, and while Levi had never admitted it, Dominic knew it was because he’d once commented on how much he liked Levi’s hair longer.

Though Levi wasn’t the bundle of jagged knives he’d been an hour earlier, he was more tense than usual, and that was saying a lot for someone whose baseline level of tension was leagues beyond the average human being’s. Dominic couldn’t blame him. It’d been bad enough when most people had believed the Seven of Spades was dead and Levi had been working the case alone in secret. Now the past few months had thrown heated public scrutiny into the mix, along with the unrelenting parade of frustration and disappointment as the police came up empty time and again.

Dominic, on the other hand, was looking forward to returning to the city. Tomorrow was his first official day of work as a licensed private investigator—though he was retaining his bounty hunting license just in case. His best friends were planning their wedding, his little sister would be giving birth any day now, and later this week he’d be meeting his boyfriend’s parents for the first time.

If it weren’t for Levi’s distress, life would be pretty much perfect.

“You should slow down,” Levi said, startling Dominic out of his reverie. “The speed limits on this road change fast, and the state troopers set speed traps on the weekends.”

Dominic was driving faster than he’d intended—easy to do on a descent like this without much traffic. “I think we’ll be fine,” he said, though he eased off the gas.

Levi went back to looking out the window, and Dominic’s thoughts wandered again as he imagined what his first case as a PI would be.

Not five minutes later, flashing red and blue lights appeared in his rearview mirror, accompanied by the wail of sirens.

Levi didn’t say a word, but his expression spoke volumes. Dominic sighed and pulled over as Levi dug in his jacket pocket for his badge.

“Easy,” Dominic said to Rebel, who was at full alert. “Settle.”

The state trooper who ambled up to the driver’s side could have been straight out of central casting, white and portly with a severe crew cut. Dominic gave him his sunniest smile.

“Afternoon, Officer.”

“You know what the speed limit is on this road, son?” the trooper said. He couldn’t have been ten years older than Dominic at the most.

“Fifty-five?”

“It’s forty-five on that stretch back there. And you were doing a cool seventy.”

Dominic winced. Levi leaned across Rebel to hand the trooper the leather holder containing his badge and LVMPD ID.

“I’m very sorry for the inconvenience, Officer,” he said. “He’ll be more careful in the future.”

The trooper’s demeanor softened as he realized he was dealing with a fellow cop. He studied Levi’s ID, and Dominic felt a prickle of foreboding.

“Detective Levi Abrams with LVMPD Homicide, huh?” the trooper said slowly. “Why does that sound familiar?”

The temperature in the truck seemed to plummet twenty degrees as Levi frosted over. Dominic gave him one quick glance and seriously considered just snatching the badge from the trooper and speeding away down the mountain, consequences be damned.

“Oh, no way,” said the trooper, oblivious to Dominic’s warning glare. “You’re that cop—”

Don’t fucking say it.

“The one the Seven of Spades is obsessed with!”

Christ. Dominic’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. There was nothing he could do to protect Levi from things like this, and he despised his inability to spare his boyfriend pain.

The trooper was still smiling proudly at them like he expected a goddamn medal.

“Yep,” Levi said with a bitter smile. “That’s me.”

* * * * * * *

The last time something like that had happened—a group of reporters had camped outside Levi’s building to ambush him on his way home—he and Dominic had gone down to his Krav Maga school, geared themselves up in full protective equipment, and beaten the shit out of each other until they were both exhausted.

Dominic made a tentative offer to do the same today when he dropped Levi at his apartment, but Levi waved off his concerns, giving him a sweet goodbye kiss and promising to call tomorrow. He seemed okay.

Dominic wasn’t fooled. Levi wasn’t in the same zip code as okay. He tended not to handle emotional stress well—or at all—and his two main coping mechanisms were sex and violence. Training Adriana wouldn’t give him the same release as sparring with an equal partner, and Dominic was worried he might implode.

Levi was a grown man, though, and Dominic couldn’t force him to ask for help. All he could do was make it clear that he was available if needed and then back off.

He hoped this wouldn’t ruin the memories of their first vacation together. It had been amazing—a full week of blissful wandering in the beauty of the national forest, disconnected from the stressors of the outside world. They’d never spent so much uninterrupted time together before, but they hadn’t gotten sick of each other once. Even when they argued, there was nobody on earth whose company Dominic enjoyed more.

Though he’d had boyfriends in the past, they’d been meaningless flings that had never lasted more than a couple of months, because he got bored and restless once he’d figured someone out. But there was no figuring Levi Abrams out. He challenged and excited Dominic just as much today as he had when the Seven of Spades had first thrust them into each other’s lives. Dominic couldn’t imagine ever wanting to let that connection go.

He pulled into a parking space outside the concrete U of his apartment building and retrieved his bags from the truck bed. Once he and Rebel were inside the chain-link fence, he unclipped her leash, and they walked past the central community pool and up the exterior staircase to the second floor.

Then he saw the balloons. They bobbed cheerfully from strings tied to his doorknob, a brightly colored bunch emblazoned with the message WELCOME HOME!

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” he muttered, approaching the door warily. He knew better than to believe that his friends had left these for him.

Three months ago, an electronic counter surveillance sweep had revealed that the Seven of Spades had been bugging his, Levi’s, and his next-door neighbors’ apartments, as well as tracking their cars. After getting rid of the devices and consulting with the landlords involved, Dominic had installed additional hardware to lock up every window and door, as well as wireless security systems.

Ever since, the Seven of Spades had taken to leaving him and Levi bizarre little gifts at their front doors, on the hoods of their cars, and once even at the club where Dominic bartended part-time. He wasn’t one hundred percent sure why, but he suspected the killer wanted to make it clear that even if they couldn’t eavesdrop directly anymore, they were keeping an eye out—for good or ill.

Dominic still did a full sweep every other week, just to be safe.

Now, his first impulse was to jab his keys into the balloons, but he knew better than to destroy evidence even if there was zero chance the police could get anything from it. He untangled the ribbon from the doorknob, brought the balloons inside, and weighed them down in the corner of his living room with a book. Levi could get them into the lab tomorrow, for all the good it would do. The Seven of Spades was too smart to leave trace evidence behind.

“Freak,” Dominic said under his breath.

Once he’d spent some time settling into his apartment after a week away, he went next door, where his best friends Carlos and Jasmine lived. Carlos opened the door with a strained smile on his face.

“Hey, Dom,” he said, raking his floppy brown hair off his forehead. “Welcome back. How was your trip?”

“It was great, thanks.” Dominic narrowed his eyes, taking in the tense lines of Carlos’s lanky body. “What’s wrong?”

Carlos swung the door open wider, inclining his head. Dominic stepped inside and raised his eyebrows.

Arts and crafts supplies had been strewn across every available surface, blanketing the furniture and even the floor. Boxes overflowed with paper, ribbons, and glue, while dozens of paint tubes were scattered between Styrofoam cups holding pencils and sticky paintbrushes. Jasmine was sitting on the floor, bent over something on the coffee table and surrounded by balled-up paper.

“Jasmine,” Dominic said.

Her head shot up and she gave him a startled look. Her hands and forearms were splashed with paint, and a long blue smear beneath her collarbone marred her elaborate tattoos.

“Dom!” she said, jumping to her feet. “I didn’t know you were back already.” She wiped her hands on a dishtowel and hurried over. He bent down so she could kiss his cheek. “How’s Levi?”

“He’s good. He’s actually heading out to Henderson tonight to see Adriana.”

“Oh, that’s great,” said Jasmine. “The last time I visited my parents, she seemed to be doing better. I think Levi and Natasha are really helping her.”

“So what’s going on in here?” Dominic asked, gently redirecting her attention to the chaos of the living room.

“Jasmine decided to design our wedding invitations herself,” Carlos said.

Dominic gathered from his tone that this was a bad thing, though he didn’t see why. Jasmine was an artist—she made her living off tattoos, but she dabbled in every fine art medium known to man, and she was incredibly talented.

“Well, I’m trying.” Jasmine headed back to the coffee table and settled into her previous spot, flipping her rainbow braids over one shoulder. “Nothing’s coming out right so far. But I’ll get there.”

Carlos dragged a hand over his stubbled jaw as he looked at Dominic. “She’s basically been sitting in that exact position since you left.”

Okay, that wasn’t good. Dominic watched her for a few seconds as she sank into her project, mumbling to herself while she sorted through the clutter on the coffee table. It wasn’t like her to be comfortable with a mess like this, and she was chewing on her lip ring the way she did when she was stressed out.

He jerked his head toward the kitchen, silently asking Carlos to follow him around the corner. There was no actual wall separating the two rooms, just a breakfast bar, so he kept his voice low when he said, “Please tell me you’re not doing that straight-guy thing where you check out of the wedding and make the bride do all the work until she goes insane.”

“I’m not!” Carlos snapped. Then he took a deep breath and said more calmly, “I’m not trying to, at least. It’s just . . . Jasmine’s parents are paying for most of the wedding, and ninety-nine percent of the guest list is her family. I kind of feel like my contributions are limited, you know?”

Dominic nodded. Carlos was trans, which his family of origin hadn’t been able to deal with; he hadn’t spoken to them in years. And while Jasmine’s enormous, sprawling family was warm and welcoming, Dominic could understand why Carlos might feel a little left out.

“Has she left the apartment for anything besides work this week?” he asked.

“No.”

“Then it’s time for an intervention. We’ll take her out tonight.”

“No offense, Dom, but you’re not an artist and you’ve never lived with one. You have no idea what it’s like trying to drag them out of this kind of creative black hole.”

He clapped Carlos’s shoulder. “Leave it to your best man,” he said, and returned to the living room. “Hey, Jasmine.”

“Hmm?” she said, not looking up.

He moved closer; then, on second thought, he sat down beside her. They’d been friends for a long time and he knew his size didn’t make her uncomfortable, but he didn’t like to loom over people with his bulk unless he was actively trying to intimidate them—or, in certain cases, turn them on.

“Carlos and I were just talking about going out to that vegan restaurant you like,” he said, touching her arm. “VegeNation? And maybe grabbing a few drinks afterward. What do you think?”

Still absorbed in her work, she shook her head. “I don’t think so. I’m pretty busy here.”

“Okay. So I guess you don’t want to hear about my first-ever vacation with my first-ever serious boyfriend?”

She paused, lifting her head, and he could see the temptation tugging at her.

“Childhood anecdotes were exchanged. Embarrassing memories revealed. Dreams for the future shared.” He leaned in. “Bonding. Deepening connections. Scorching hot hotel sex—”

Laughing, she shoved his shoulder and said, “Fine, you got me. I’ll come. But you don’t have to tell me about that last part.”

“You sure? It really was fantastic sex. All that fresh mountain air.”

She snorted, and he took her hands, bringing them both to their feet.

“Let me just go wash up and change,” she said, and headed toward the back of the apartment.

Dominic turned around to see Carlos watching him and shaking his head. “What?”

“You’d think I’d have learned by now not to underestimate your ability to manipulate people,” Carlos said, a mischievous glint in his eyes. “At least you only use your powers for good.”

“With great power comes great responsibility,” Dominic said gravely, and ducked the roll of paper towels Carlos threw at him.

 

Chapter Three

“So are we just not gonna talk about what’s happening tonight?” Martine asked in her thick Flatbush accent. She slid her car into a spot between two large vans and put it in park.

Levi looked over at her as he unbuckled his seat belt. “What?”

“I keep waiting for you to bring it up, but that’s obviously a mistake.” She pulled her keys out of the ignition.

“Do you really think this is the most appropriate place for this conversation?” He nodded at the building in front of them: the Clark County Coroner’s Office.

She arched one perfectly groomed eyebrow. “Your parents are coming out to meet Dominic. That’s kind of a big deal.”

They got out of the car, the slamming doors echoing through the parking lot. Martine was Levi’s closest friend, a woman he trusted more than his own sister, but he did not want to get into this now. “My parents are coming to visit me. The fact that they’ll meet Dominic is incidental.”

A stiff autumn breeze rushed past as they walked toward the building, tousling Levi’s hair and ruffling Martine’s springy natural finger coils. Though she barely came up to his shoulder, the force of her personality always made her seem taller.

“Yeah, right,” she said. “Your parents are flying over two thousand miles to take a random three-day weekend in October just to see you and play a little blackjack? Get real.”

He held the front door for her, then followed her inside. They showed their badges to the reception clerk and were ushered around the metal detector by a security guard. Only when they were alone again in the maze of familiar hallways did he say, “I can’t think about it too closely or I’ll freak out. My mother spent three years never once calling Stanton by his actual name, and she liked him.”

Levi’s relationship with Stanton Barclay had been serious; they’d lived together for years, and Stanton had even asked Levi’s parents for their blessing to propose. Levi’s mother had addressed Stanton by name to his face, of course, but when she was talking to Levi she invariably referred to him as your young man. She did the same thing now with Dominic.

“I don’t think you need to worry so much,” Martine said as they stopped outside the door to Exam Room C. “Everyone who meets Dominic loves him. I’ve heard bounties he’s arrested talk about what a nice guy he is.”

Levi spread his hands. “I have a Jewish mother. I am her only son. King David himself could walk the earth again and she wouldn’t think he was good enough for me.”

Chuckling, Martine rapped on the door and swung it open. Levi stowed his personal drama and concentrated on the task at hand.

They were greeted by Dr. Maldonado, one of Clark County’s five full-time medical examiners. She was an older woman, with graying black hair pulled up in a bun, wearing a pair of cat-eye glasses on an old-fashioned jeweled chain. Since she’d been expecting them, she had the deceased ready on the table in the middle of the room.

“Paul Yu,” she said, pulling the sheet down to the man’s waist. “DOA at UMC Trauma at two thirty this morning. Hospital staff followed all protocol as far as I could tell. I removed the resuscitative equipment myself.”

“Oof,” Martine said as she looked the man over, and Levi silently agreed. They’d both read the reports from the EMTs and responding officers; Yu had been found shot in the parking garage of his apartment building, no suspects at the scene and no direct witnesses, and had died in the ambulance en route to the University Medical Center.

But the reports hadn’t gone into detail about how badly he’d been beaten. His face was bruised and bloody, half the bones smashed, and it looked like he’d taken several severe blows to the ribs as well. Someone had been venting serious rage.

“Cause of death was two GSWs to the abdomen.” Maldonado pointed to the wounds in question—the skin was charred and ripped in a star-shaped pattern, indicating that the gun had been pressed right up against Yu’s stomach when it was fired. “As you can see, however, he was involved in a serious physical altercation prior to being shot.”

“Looks like he might have given as good as he got.” After pulling on a pair of nitrile gloves, Levi gently lifted Yu’s right hand. The knuckles were ripped up in a way he was quite familiar with, the fingernails caked with blood and tissue.

“That’s a hefty DNA sample right there,” said Martine.

Maldonado nodded. “I’ve completed the external examination, and I’ll begin the autopsy shortly. There are no exit wounds, so hopefully I’ll be able to recover the bullets more or less intact.”

They discussed the case for a few more minutes, then thanked Maldonado and headed back the way they’d come. Out on the sidewalk once more, Martine said, “You want to hit up the crime scene while I interview the vic’s family?”

“Sounds good. Also, if Yu really did put up a good fight, the killer may have needed backroom medical attention. I’ll put the word out to our informants.”

“We may need to touch base with Organized Crime too,” she said.

He stopped mid-stride. “What? Why?”

“Well, it’s hard to be sure when the guy looks like a horse kicked in his face, but I think Paul Yu was with the Park family.”

“Shit,” Levi muttered. The Parks were a Korean-American crime family who maintained an eminently respectable front in the city. Most of the members of the nuclear family itself were lawyers in Vegas’s most prestigious criminal defense firm, Hatfield, Park, and McKenzie. Every now and then a handful of their subordinates would take the fall for one of their many white-collar crime operations, but no law enforcement agency had ever been able to charge one of the Parks with a single crime.

What made the prospect of involving Organized Crime particularly unpleasant was that the cops in the OC Bureau were arrogant dicks. They thought they were still living in the days when the Italian mob had ruled Las Vegas; although that time had long since passed, you’d never know it from the way those OC pricks acted. The only cops worse were in Internal Affairs.

As Martine unlocked the car, she said, “You do understand that when I say we need to touch base, what I really mean is that I will reach out to the bureau and you will do and say absolutely nothing, right? The last thing we need is another interdepartmental incident that ends in a shouting match and a broken window.”

“That was one time, Martine,” he said, scowling at her over the roof of the car.

* * * * * * *

Paul Yu had lived in a mid-range apartment building Downtown, a couple of miles away from Levi’s own building in Rancho Oakey. It was nice enough to have an attached parking garage, and Yu had been shot only steps away from where he’d parked his Nissan.

Levi stood alone at the crime scene, which was still cordoned off with yellow tape. A large reddish-brown stain marked the spot where Yu had bled out; smaller flecks of blood all around it could belong to Yu or his attacker or both. Uniformed officers had found and bagged the shell casings before the crime had officially been declared a homicide and turfed over to his squad. Other than that, there was nothing of much interest here.

He walked in a slow circle. This was a relatively isolated spot, a corner far from the entrance to the apartments. Yu had arrived home in the middle of the night, gotten out of his car, and been accosted immediately—most likely by someone he knew, given the fury evident in the assault and the fact that nothing had been stolen. He and his attacker had engaged in an all-out slugfest before the other person had drawn a gun and shot Yu point-blank in the guts.

Bad way to go.

Several residents had heard the gunshots and called 911, though none had ventured out to the garage. By the time the cops and EMTs arrived, the shooter had long since fled. Levi would have to check the garage for any skid marks or other signs of a car departing in a hurry.

His guess was the shooter hadn’t entered the confrontation intending to kill Yu; if they had, they would have just shot him to begin with rather than risk a fight. But things had gotten out of hand and now they were on the run.

Martine might come up with some leads during her interviews with Yu’s family and friends, and a personal connection would make the killer easier to find. In the meantime, Levi would scour the garage from top to bottom and obtain the security camera tapes from the exit, as well as the footage from every traffic camera in a ten-block radius. Murderers fleeing the scene of the crime in the middle of the night tended to ignore red lights.

His cell phone buzzed. He pulled it from his pocket to read a text from his mother, which she’d sent in a group chat that included his father.

On our way to the airport now! Your father and I are looking forward to meeting your new young man. See you soon xoxo Mom

Safe flight, love you, Levi texted back. He was returning the phone to his pocket when it buzzed again.

Your father and I can always take a cab to the hotel if it’s too much trouble for you to pick us up.

Levi rolled his eyes, but before he could write that of course it was no trouble at all, a message from his father popped up on the screen.

She means an Uber. Nobody takes cabs anymore!

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Levi watched in bemusement as his parents, who were no doubt sitting next to each other in the car of whichever friend had volunteered to drive them to the airport, proceeded to get into a fast and furious argument about cabs vs. Uber via group text.

“Oh my God,” he said to the empty garage.

* * * * * * *

He returned to his substation south of the Strip in the early afternoon, a cup of black coffee with two shots of espresso in one hand. Lost in thought, he was operating on autopilot as he entered the bullpen. Then he looked up and banged hard into the side of his desk as he was confronted with the most stunningly beautiful man he’d ever seen.

The man looked like a prince in a historical drama, lean and toned with gleaming bronze skin. A halo of loose, silky dark curls tumbled around a face that Michelangelo would have creamed himself over, all strong, proud nose and chiseled jaw. His eyelashes were so lush that Levi could see them from fifteen feet away.

Levi couldn’t help but stare. The man was deep in conversation with Jonah Gibbs, a stout, ruddy-faced cop who was slowly but surely becoming the bane of Levi’s existence, and James Wen, Levi’s sergeant. He knew he’d never seen the man before—he’d remember a face like that.

Wen was the first to notice Levi’s arrival. “Abrams!” he called out, beckoning Levi forward.

After a flustered moment in which Levi started toward them, remembered he was holding his coffee, and found a place to set it down, he joined their small group. The man regarded him with frank interest.

“Abrams, this is Special Agent . . .” Wen paused. “I’m sorry, could you pronounce your name for me again?”

“Rohan Chaudhary.” The man had the kind of soft voice that instantly commanded attention, urging one to lean in to hear him better. “But please,” he added as he extended his hand, “call me by my first name. I’m not one for formality.”

Levi blinked, preoccupied by the shape of Rohan’s generous mouth, until a quiet snicker from Gibbs jolted him into action. “Levi Abrams,” he said, shaking Rohan’s hand more firmly than was warranted. Only then did the full impact of Wen’s statement sink in. “Wait, you’re the—”

“The FBI agent from the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime,” Wen said, giving Levi a significant look. “Yes.”

“Detective Abrams,” Rohan said with a bright, charming smile. “It’s truly a pleasure to meet you. I’ve read so much about you over the past couple of weeks that I almost feel like I know you.”

“I thought you weren’t coming until tomorrow,” said Levi, for whom tact had never been a strong suit—still less so when he was caught off guard.

Rohan didn’t seem offended. “I decided to catch an earlier flight. I won’t officially present to the department until Monday, but I like to spend a few days doing my own field work first, getting a concrete sense of the case I’ve been studying.” He tilted his head and added, “Speaking of which, do you think you and I could sit down for a one-on-one? There’s only so much detail I can get from written reports, and I’d love to pick your brain. It’d be even better if your partner Mr. Russo could join us. I have a lot of questions for him.”

“Um . . . actually, I have family coming in tonight for the weekend. I don’t think that’ll work out. Maybe next week?”

Rohan nodded amiably, but Wen and Gibbs were both gaping at Levi. Neither of them had ever heard him pass up work in favor of family—or anything else, for that matter.

Tough shit. Levi was in no mood to have a criminal profiler “pick his brain” about how he’d utterly failed to catch the Seven of Spades, especially when said profiler was so surreally attractive that it would be a legitimate distraction.

“Agent— Ah, Rohan, why don’t I show you to your temporary work space so you can settle in?” Wen said.

The two men went on their way. Levi returned to his desk, slumped into his chair, and took a long, burning gulp of his coffee.

“You’re not really going to let Russo meet that guy, are you?” Gibbs asked, hovering beside him.

“Why wouldn’t I?”

“Hey, I may not be gay, but I know a good-looking guy when I see one.” Gibbs eyed him up and down. “And if you ask me, your boyfriend has kind of a thing for skinny dudes with curly hair. You might want to watch your back.”

Gibbs strode away, whistling. Levi glowered after him and reminded himself for the thousandth time that it was unacceptable to hit a coworker just because he was a massive douchebag.

 

Chapter Four

Four days into his new job, and Dominic still hadn’t adjusted to the fact that he had his own office. Granted, it was roughly the size of a closet, but it was his—his name on the door, his pictures on the desk.

The whole thing was a foreign experience for him. Out of high school, he’d done one restless semester of community college before he’d enlisted in the Army for eight years. After he was discharged, he’d started bartending—an easy way to make great money in Vegas, and something he still did to help pay off his gambling debts. Then he’d quickly picked up bounty hunting as well on the advice of a fellow veteran. This was the first time he’d ever had an actual office job, and as far as those went, it was a pretty awesome one.

Though he could do without wearing a suit every day.

He yanked at the knot in his tie yet again as he clicked through a database of DMV records. The cases he was working on this week only required research that could easily be done via computer and phone. On the one hand, it was nice to have some time to settle into his new position, but on the other, he was starting to get bored. As much as he enjoyed having an office, he’d never been great at sitting still for long.

So when an email from his boss popped up on his screen, he’d never been happier to hear from her.

Got a case for you. My office.

Terse and to the point: very much Kate McBride’s style. Dominic grinned, saved what he was working on, and shrugged into his suit jacket on his way out the door.

McBride was the third generation in her family to run McBride Investigations, a discreet and exclusive firm right off the Strip. Dominic was unsurprised to find an e-cigarette in her hand when he entered her office. She must single-handedly support half of Vegas’s vaping industry with the number of cartridges she went through in a day.

He sniffed the air as he sat in the chair across from her desk, catching the scent of the vapor she’d just exhaled. “Is that . . . piña colada?”

“It’s called Malibu,” she said, scowling at the cigarette. Her voice was permanently lowered to a husky rasp by decades of chain-smoking before she’d switched. “Moira gave it to me—she hates that bourbon flavor I like. I told her she’s the reason I quit real tobacco to begin with, so she can make her peace with whatever flavor I choose.”

He didn’t point out that she obviously had ditched the bourbon one. If McBride had a soft spot, it was her beautiful and much-younger wife. He’d met Moira, though, and he knew the adoration went both ways.

“Anyway, we got a case that’s right up your alley.” McBride dug a file folder one-handed out of a towering stack and tossed it across the desk. “You’re good at finding people. Find her.”

He opened the folder and studied a photograph of a young black woman with long, straight hair and a brilliant smile. She was dressed in a graduation cap and gown, holding a diploma and radiating pride. A small silver cross hung around her neck.

“What’s the story?” he asked.

“Jessica Miller. Dropped out of college seven months ago and then disappeared. Cops won’t touch the case because she’s an adult and she left of her own free will.”

He didn’t need to read further to guess the reason behind Jessica’s vanishing act. “Who’s the guy?”

McBride chuckled. “Jessica’s parents knew him as John Williams, but that’s not his real name. This case was referred to us by the PI in Bakersfield they hired over the summer. He tracked Jessica and her boyfriend all over Southern California for months until the trail went cold in Vegas. He doesn’t have the resources or manpower to pursue a case across state lines, so it’s your lucky day.”

Nodding, Dominic scooped up the file and said, “I’ll get started right away. Anything else?”

She kicked back in her chair. “Your tie’s crooked.”

from Publishers Weekly

Kingsbridge’s splendidly twisty third Seven of Spades romantic thriller is rife with red herrings.