Kill Game (Seven of Spades, #1)
This title is #1 of the Seven of Spades series.
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Homicide detective Levi Abrams is barely holding his life together. He’s reeling from the fallout of a fatal shooting, and his relationship with his boyfriend is crumbling. The last thing he’s prepared for is a serial killer stalking the streets of Las Vegas. Or how he keeps getting thrown into the path of annoyingly charming bounty hunter Dominic Russo.
Dominic likes his life free of complications. That means no tangling with cops—especially prickly, uptight detectives. But when he stumbles across one of the Seven of Spades’s horrifying crime scenes, he can’t let go, despite Levi’s warnings to stay away.
The Seven of Spades is ruthless and always two moves ahead. Worst of all, they’ve taken a dangerously personal interest in Levi and Dominic. Forced to trust each other, the two men race to discover the killer’s identity, revealing hidden truths along the way and sparking a bond neither man expected. But that may not be enough to protect them.
This killer likes to play games, and the deck is not stacked in Levi and Dominic’s favor.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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“Are you going to say it, or am I?” Martine asked.
Levi sighed, studying the body in front of them. Phillip Dreyer was sitting upright in his fancy ergonomic office chair, his forearms propped on his broad mahogany desk as if welcoming a client—though the image was somewhat spoiled by the way his head lolled back and to one side, his throat slit from ear to ear in a gaping arc. Blood soaked the front of his designer suit and pooled at the edge of the desk.
His eyes were still open.
“It’s possible that we have a serial killer on our hands,” Levi said.
Martine immediately took up the position of devil’s advocate. “Two bodies with similar MOs doesn’t mean a serial killer. It’s not even technically a pattern.” Her accent was pure Flatbush, with none of the lingering Haitian lilt from her childhood that shone through when she was excited.
Levi moved closer to the desk. Out of habit, he kept his hands in his pockets, though he was already wearing nitrile gloves.
All around him, the spacious office was abuzz with activity: uniformed officers chatting at the door, the photographer snapping shots from every angle, crime scene investigators trawling the room in the grid pattern they’d established. Levi ignored it all, focused on one detail in particular.
Peeking out from the breast pocket of Dreyer’s jacket, spattered with dripping blood but still legible, was a single playing card—the seven of spades.
Coming around the side of the desk, Levi saw that the bloody pocket square which had originally resided in Dreyer’s pocket had been dropped carelessly on the floor next to him. He noted its position and turned back toward Martine. “Seven of spades. Same as Billy Campbell.”
“Which is creepy,” she said, “but let’s not jump to conclusions.”
“Most killers don’t leave calling cards.”
“They might if they wanted to disguise their motivation and put the cops on the wrong trail.”
He nodded. “You think one person had reason to kill both men?” No apparent connection sprang to mind. Besides being middle-aged white men—and the eerie similarities of their crime scenes—Dreyer and Campbell had nothing in common. Dreyer had been a highly successful wealth management advisor at the prestigious Skyline Financial Services; Campbell had been a lowlife bar rat who’d weaseled his way out of multiple charges for domestic violence and drug possession. They’d inhabited entirely different worlds.
“Maybe. Statistically, it’s more likely than them being targeted by a serial killer.”
They’d kept the playing card from Campbell’s homicide under tight wraps, so unless there was a leak in the department and an in-the-know copycat, both men had been killed by the same person. Levi hoped the murders were personally motivated; that would make the killer a hell of a lot easier to catch.
He stood directly behind Dreyer’s body, his eyes roving over the chair and desk. The coroner investigator hadn’t arrived yet, but Levi had seen enough crime scenes in his four years as a homicide detective to estimate the time of death at around two to three hours prior. Throat slit from behind, death from massive blood loss . . .
Martine frowned, leaning forward to study the corpse from the opposite side. Her short, springy finger coils fell into her eyes, and she shook them back impatiently. “No signs of a struggle.”
He’d just been thinking the same thing. He turned around in a slow circle to take in the room as a whole.
It was a gorgeous office, the back wall consisting of floor-to-ceiling windows with a fantastic view of the glittering Las Vegas Strip twenty-five stories below. Dreyer had positioned his desk in the center of the wall, his chair only a few feet from the glass. The sole entrance to the office was the door all the way on the other side, at a slight diagonal to the desk and across a wide expanse of polished hardwood flooring.
Conclusion: little room for the killer to stand behind Dreyer, and no way for them to approach without giving him plenty of warning. Yet it didn’t seem that Dreyer had even gotten out of his chair. Levi would have to take a closer look once he was allowed to move the body, but he couldn’t see any defensive wounds on the man’s arms or hands, either.
“Killer took him by surprise?” Levi said dubiously.
“How many people do you trust to stand behind you while you’re sitting down?”
Few enough to count on one hand and have fingers left over. He continued his circuit of the desk.
Everything on the desk’s surface was in perfect order—Dreyer hadn’t grabbed for anything, either to defend himself against the attack or in a panic after he’d taken a blade to the throat. Of course, the killer could have rearranged the scene to their satisfaction after Dreyer had died, but in that case, the blood spatter would be telling a different story.
The story Levi read here was that Dreyer had sat obediently still while someone had cut his throat, and then had continued sitting still while he’d bled out. Why?
A crystal tumbler sat a few inches from Dreyer’s right hand, filled with a small amount of amber liquid. Levi’s eyes narrowed.
“Campbell was high when he died, right?” he asked Martine.
“Yeah, on all kinds of shit. I think it was pretty unusual for him to not be high, though.”
“What was he on, exactly?”
She withdrew a notepad from her inner jacket pocket and flipped through it. “Methamphetamines, trace amounts of oxycodone and Adderall, some marijuana thrown in there for good measure, and . . .” She made a thoughtful noise. “Ketamine. Lots of it.”
Her eyes met Levi’s, and then they both looked at the glass on the desk.
Ketamine was a dissociative drug, and at a high enough dose, it could put a user into a trance, even induce temporary paralysis. A person fucked up on enough ketamine wouldn’t be able to fight back against an assailant, which was one of the several reasons it was sometimes used to facilitate date rape.
Campbell had been a habitual drug user, so his toxicology report hadn’t raised any red flags. If Dreyer tested positive for ketamine as well, though—that would be a strong connection, and a solid lead.
Levi waved to one of the crime scene investigators. She stopped what she was doing and hurried over at once.
“Yes, Detective Abrams?”
“When you process the desk, please make sure you take special care with the glass. I need toxicology reports on both the remaining liquid and any residue inside the glass itself. Fingerprints, too.”
“Of course, sir.” The technician jotted down a note for herself before returning to her colleagues.
“So, here’s my question,” Martine said as Levi rejoined her in front of the desk. “If you know you’re gonna murder somebody and you go to all the trouble of drugging them, why not just kill them with an overdose?”
“They wanted to slit his throat,” he said quietly. “Killing someone with drugs isn’t the same as killing them with a knife. There’s no visceral, hands-on satisfaction. No blood. No thrill.”
“Jesus.” She was silent for a moment, chewing her lower lip in thought. “All right. So, you want to slit someone’s throat, but you drug them into a daze first because . . . you want to keep things nice and quiet, don’t want to risk them calling out for help or making enough noise to draw attention. Or because you can’t risk a struggle, because there’s a good chance you’d lose.”
“Perp could be smaller than the victim. Victims.”
“If this is a serial killer . . .”
Levi shook his head. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. You were right that two bodies isn’t enough evidence to float that theory. We need to work the personal connection angle first.”
All logic aside, though, he had a sick, uneasy feeling in his gut, born of experience and intuition. Judging by the expression on Martine’s face, she felt something similar.
Though he already knew the answer, he asked, “You want to stay here and run the crime scene, or interview the woman who found him?” Martine was a natural leader, comfortable in a position of command, whereas Levi preferred to work with people one-on-one.
“I’ll stay,” she said, and then added, “I’m not hauling my ass over to the CCDC this time of night.”
That last part was a surprise—there was no reason for a witness to have been taken to the Clark County Detention Center. “What’s she doing there?”
“Didn’t you hear? She assaulted one of the responding officers.”
Levi blinked. “What? Why?”
“She’s an Eastern European national—Ukrainian or something, is what I heard—and I guess she doesn’t trust cops much. One of the geniuses threatened to call ICE when she wouldn’t cooperate. She ran off, he chased her down, and she popped him right in the jaw.”
Rolling his eyes, Levi said, “Which officer was it?”
Martine grinned. “Take a wild guess.”
“Gibbs,” he said in disgust. Jonah Gibbs was an impulsive hothead with a big mouth and more balls than sense. “He’s going to get the department sued one of these days.”
“Well, maybe a nice big bruise will settle him down for a while.”
Levi glanced at his watch, calculating how long it would take him to wade through this mess at the CCDC before he was even able to interview the witness, and heaved a sigh. He’d already been on the tail end of a ten-hour shift when he’d been called out to this crime scene; he and Martine had worked the Campbell homicide, and when one of the uniforms had noticed the connection, they’d been assigned this case as well, even though they weren’t next in rotation on their squad.
“I can’t believe I had to cancel on Stanton again. He’s not going to be happy.”
Martine waved a dismissive hand. “He knows what it means to date a cop. Been doing it three years, hasn’t he? He’ll get over it.”
Levi didn’t respond. Lately, Stanton had been making more frequent and pointed comments about Levi’s long, irregular hours, about the danger he put himself in, and what those things meant for their future together. He’d been especially sensitive about it since—
“Detective Valcourt, do you have a moment?” said Fred, the crime scene photographer. He’d worked with the pair of them many times before, and didn’t have to ask to know that Martine was in charge.
Levi took the opportunity to say goodbye and make his exit. He signed out at the crime scene log maintained by the officers at the door, stripped off his gloves and booties, and headed down the plush hallway to the elevator bank at the center of the twenty-fifth floor, hitting the down button.
While he waited, he noticed a security camera perched up in one corner, giving it a panoramic view of the area outside the elevators and a good chunk of the hallway going in both directions. He pulled out his cell phone to text Martine.
Maybe they’d get lucky.
* * * * * * *
Dominic rang the doorbell of a house in Henderson, a small stucco ranch with a clay tile roof that blended seamlessly with the desert environment. It was one of dozens that looked just like it on the sleepy suburban block, quiet now as the neighborhood wound down for the night.
While he waited, he tugged on the brim of his bright-red baseball cap and rolled his shoulders under the matching windbreaker, both emblazoned with the flashy logo of Pete’s Premium Pizza. The manager of the local franchise had been eager to lend his assistance, thrilled by the idea of helping recover a fugitive, but even the largest staff jacket he’d had on hand wasn’t quite big enough to comfortably fit a man of Dominic’s tall, heavily muscled build.
The blinds fluttered over the front window. Seconds later, Danny Ruiz opened the door, all his focus on the pizza box in Dominic’s left hand.
Dominic forcibly suppressed a thrill of triumph. He’d learned the hard way to never relax on the job until his bounty was in police custody—there were too many unexpected things that could go wrong between now and then.
“About time, man.” Ruiz reached for the pizza with one hand and thrust a fistful of cash at Dominic with the other. “The guy on the phone told me half an hour.”
The guy on the phone hadn’t known to account for the time it would take the manager to alert Dominic that Ruiz had ordered, or for Dominic to get himself set up. Dominic let Ruiz take the pizza, but he didn’t accept the cash.
“Sorry about that, Mr. Ruiz,” he said.
Ruiz froze, his gaze darting upward to Dominic’s face. He’d ordered the pizza under the name of the cousin he’d been hiding out with for the past two weeks.
“Daniel Ruiz, I’ve been authorized by Sin City Bail Bonds to place you under arrest and surrender—”
Dropping the pizza and the cash right there on the threshold, Ruiz whirled around and bolted into the house. Dominic groaned and gave chase.
The interior of the house was cramped but cozy, toys strewn all across the floor, the walls and tables sporting photographs of two cute kids. Dominic paid them no mind as he ran past—the cousin and his wife had taken the kids to visit their grandmother for the weekend. The planned trip was why Dominic had waited so long to arrest Ruiz, who he’d tracked down days ago.
Though Ruiz swerved around the couch in the living room, Dominic vaulted right over it, which put him on Ruiz’s heels as they raced into the kitchen at the rear of the house. Ruiz tore open the back door and then skidded to a stop with a frightened yelp.
Positioned on the back steps was a hundred-pound German Shepherd–Rottweiler mix. Rebel sat at full attention, her ears pricked up, her entire body attuned to Ruiz’s every movement. She exhibited no signs of aggression, though—she wouldn’t unless Dominic gave the order, which he only used as an absolute last resort.
Ruiz looked back at Dominic, who had stopped at the kitchen doorway. As Ruiz’s head swung wildly back and forth, Dominic could see the struggle playing out on his face: head for the muscle-bound man twice his size, or the dog that could tear his throat out in seconds?
It was no choice at all, of course, and so Ruiz was paralyzed into stillness. Dominic took off his baseball cap and tossed it aside, raking a hand through his hair to get it back in order.
“You missed your court date, Mr. Ruiz. You know I gotta take you in.”
“I couldn’t pay them back,” Ruiz whispered. “I just didn’t have the money.”
“I understand,” Dominic said, which was the unvarnished truth. He empathized with Ruiz’s situation more than most of his associates would have. “But you ignored all of the opportunities you were given to work out the debt before it became a criminal charge, and then you ran away after your own mother posted your bail. The longer you drag this out, the worse it’s going to be for you in the end.”
In Nevada, unpaid casino markers were considered equivalent to bad checks—intentional attempts at fraud, prosecutable as a felony if the amount was high enough. By ignoring the casino’s attempts to settle the debt before filing a complaint with the DA, Ruiz had landed himself in very hot water.
Dominic unhooked a pair of handcuffs from his belt and advanced slowly, his arms spread wide. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
He would if he had to, though. He had a concealed carry permit, and he never went on a job without the Glock strapped under his left arm. To date, he’d never had to use it on a bounty, but he did get a lot of mileage out of his stun gun and mace.
Ruiz backed up a step, then stopped short and flinched when Rebel huffed in warning. His body trembled from head to toe.
Wary for any sudden movement, Dominic closed the distance between them. Though Ruiz seemed more a runner than a fighter, people were capable of surprising things when cornered, and the kitchen—chock-full of potential weapons—was one of the worst places to end up in a violent altercation.
Ruiz bounced on the balls of his feet, breathing hard, glancing around as if there were an escape route he’d missed.
His voice soft, Dominic said, “Your mother used her house as collateral for your bail. If you don’t come with me, she’s going to lose it. Is that the kind of son you want to be?”
Ruiz’s eyes fell shut as his shoulders slumped in defeat. “Fuck,” he muttered, and extended his wrists.
“Thank you.” Dominic clicked the handcuffs into place and patted Ruiz down for weapons. Finding none, as expected, he whistled for Rebel to come inside and then shut and locked the back door.
On their way out the front, he paused to gather up the scattered cash and stack it neatly on the sideboard. He took the pizza with him, though, because he could only imagine what it would be like for the family to come home on Sunday to a box full of days-old rotting cheese.
Besides, there was no sense in letting a good pizza go to waste.
Dominic lounged on a bench in the CCDC, thumbing idly through the Grindr app on his phone while he waited for the officers to finish processing Ruiz’s arrest and confirm with the bail bondsman. The bounty on this one wasn’t huge, but it would pay off some debt and make up for him missing a Friday night bartending shift at Stingray.
“The few weeks of self-defense you got at the academy aren’t going to do anything for you,” said a familiar voice. Dominic turned his head to see Levi Abrams heading down the hallway, trailed by a rookie cop. “Real skill and reliable muscle memory take years of dedicated training. My advice is to find a discipline that works for you and pursue it on your own time.”
His companion, a white woman in her early twenties whose blonde hair was pulled into a bouncy ponytail, nodded thoughtfully as she and Levi stopped at the reception desk not far from where Dominic sat. “You mean like karate?”
Levi shrugged. “Whatever you’d like. Eastern martial arts never appealed to me, to be honest.”
“What do you do, then?”
“Krav Maga,” Levi said absently. He checked his watch and sighed, the fingers of his free hand drumming the desk in an impatient gesture.
It was a rare opportunity to observe Levi without him realizing he was being watched, and Dominic took full advantage of it. Levi’s wiry body, always strung tight with tension, was displayed to perfection in an impeccably tailored suit—a much nicer suit than he should be able to afford on a detective’s salary, in fact, which meant his mega-rich boyfriend had probably bought it for him. His curly black hair was cut short, and he had cheekbones like a pair of razors. Some might think them too prominent, but Dominic found the effect striking, especially in profile.
Of course, Levi hadn’t made detective based on his good looks; it only took a few seconds for him to frown and glance around, searching for the disturbance to his cop instincts. Dominic stayed where he was, smiling when they made eye contact. Levi’s already slender lips thinned out further.
“Detective Abrams.” Dominic pocketed his phone and stood. The rookie’s eyes widened as she watched him unfold himself to his full height and join them at the desk. “What are you doing here so late?”
“None of your business.” Levi’s eyes were a clear, startling gray, cool now with disdain. “And you? Dragged another lowlife bail jumper in here by his hair, I’m guessing?”
“I only drag the really nasty ones.” Dominic winked at the rookie, then said to Levi, “Aren’t you going to introduce us?”
Levi scowled at him before turning to the rookie. “Officer Kelly Marin, Dominic Russo. He’s a bounty hunter.”
“Bail enforcement agent,” Dominic said, not because he objected to the term bounty hunter, but because he liked how the correction made Levi’s nostrils flare.
“Really?” Kelly regarded him with the intrigued expression that was the most common reaction he received. “How’d you get into that?”
“Spent eight years as an Army Ranger, and when I got out of the service, I was kind of at loose ends.” Dominic left out the less savory parts of what loose ends had meant for him. “A buddy of mine suggested bail enforcement, so here we are.”
“That’s awesome. Do you—”
“Detective Abrams,” said an officer behind the desk, interrupting them. “Your witness is ready.”
“Thank you,” Levi said, his tone one of pure relief. “See you later, Kelly.” He gave Dominic a short nod. “Mr. Russo.”
Dominic nodded back and watched as Levi walked around the desk and was ushered away by the officer. There were many advantages to a well-tailored suit, and Dominic was treated to one of them right now: a view of soft wool clinging to the lines of lean, strong thighs and a tight ass that defined the word spankable.
Kelly looked from Dominic to Levi and back again, then made a soft noise of understanding. “You know he has a boyfriend, right?”
“He may have a boyfriend, but he doesn’t have a ring,” Dominic said, layering the words with heavy insinuation. Kelly laughed.
Jokes aside, the truth was that Dominic wouldn’t seriously pursue Levi, no matter what his relationship status. The man was gorgeous, sure, but he was prickly as a hedgehog and tightly wound as a Victorian schoolmarm. Dominic had no idea how that boyfriend of his handled him.
* * * * * * *
Levi had trouble shaking off the irritation of his encounter with Dominic Russo after he walked away. As a rule, he detested bounty hunters—aggressive, cocky adrenaline junkies, all of them, in it for the thrill of the chase and nothing more. Dominic was no different, even if he did pretty it up with self-deprecating charm and a friendly smile.
And what a smile it was—an easy, devastating grin in a face that was handsome enough to begin with, all warm brown eyes and strong jaw. His nose had a small break in it, but that somehow made him more attractive. The thought alone was enough to annoy Levi, who didn’t normally find large guys appealing. Far from his usual type, Dominic was a giant bear of a man, half a foot taller than Levi—who was no shrimp himself—and built like a truck.
Enough. Levi firmly shut down that train of thought and stepped into the interview room, finding a new source of frustration in the necessity of speaking to Anna Granovsky in this intimidating, sterile environment. Discovering a dead body under any circumstances, still less a grisly crime scene like Dreyer’s, was a traumatic experience. He preferred to take witness statements somewhere the person could feel comfortable; doing it here would put Granovsky automatically on the defensive and cast Levi as an enemy instead of an ally.
She sat at the table—unrestrained, as per Levi’s request—still wearing the uniform of the cleaning company that Skyline’s building contracted with. As Martine had mentioned, she was originally from Ukraine, though she’d been in the States for over a decade. Levi hadn’t checked her citizenship status. He didn’t care either way.
As he approached the table, his eyes fell on the thin chain around Granovsky’s neck, from which hung the symbol for the Hebrew word Chai, or living. It was a central concept of Judaism, and the reason charitable gifts were usually given in multiples of eighteen—the numerical value of Chai.
Maybe a sense of camaraderie wasn’t out of reach, after all.
“Mrs. Granovsky, I’m Detective Levi Abrams,” he said, sitting in the chair across from her. He inclined his head and added, “I like your necklace. Sh’kula tsdakâ ke’nêged kol ha’mitzvot.” Charity outweighs all other commandments.
She blinked in surprise, and then her face softened as she looked him up and down, assessing. He met her eyes steadily.
“It is so,” she said at length. “Your parents taught you well.”
“Thank you. I want to apologize for the ordeal you’ve been through tonight. Officer Gibbs sometimes gets carried away with his own enthusiasm.”
“I should not have hit him. I know this.” She spread her hands as if to ask, But what can you do? “Though he did threaten me, and something about him—you have an expression here, about the face?”
“He’s got a very punchable face,” Levi said, his lips twitching.
She laughed softly. “Yes. Still, it was wrong for me to hit him. I am sorry.”
“I understand. I’ve spoken to Officer Gibbs, and nobody will be pursuing charges against you. You’re free to go . . . though I’d appreciate it if you could first speak to me about what happened tonight when you found Phillip Dreyer’s body.”
With a slow nod, Granovsky sat back in her chair. “Of course. What do you want to know?”
Levi hid his relief as he got out a notepad and pen. This was proceeding more smoothly than he’d feared. “You found him around 9 p.m.?”
“Yes. I always start cleaning on the twenty-fifth floor at eight o’clock. I saw the light in Mr. Dreyer’s office was on, so I left him for last.”
“Did he often work late?”
“Oh, yes. Very common. Sometimes he would leave before I finished, but if he was still there, he would let me come in and take the trash.”
Levi made a note. “You knew him, then? You’d spoken to him in the past?”
“Yes . . .”
He looked up at the strange weight in her voice to find her frowning. “What is it?”
“I tried to avoid him if I could.” Granovsky hesitated for a moment. “He was . . . not a good man.”
“Really?” Levi said, startled. This was the first he’d heard anything like this. “What makes you say that?”
Her mouth worked open and shut before she said, “His eyes never moved when he smiled. Just cold and empty. He was always polite. Very . . . nice, yes? But nice man doesn’t mean good man. You understand?”
“I do.” Levi tapped his pen against the pad while he turned her words over in his mind. One person’s intuition about the vic didn’t mean much without corroborating evidence, but it drew an unexpected parallel between Dreyer and Campbell. Her statement merited further investigation, at the very least.
He shook his head and refocused on Granovsky, walking through her story step-by-step. She’d known Dreyer was dead the moment she’d entered his office—the state the body had been in hadn’t left any doubt—so she hadn’t tried to render aid or touch him in any way. In fact, she hadn’t ventured further than a couple of feet inside the door. She had immediately notified building security, who had called the police and sequestered her in an empty office until the responding officers had arrived.
There had been a few other people on the twenty-fifth floor while she’d been cleaning, but though she didn’t know them all by name, she was confident that she’d seen them all there in the past. She hadn’t noticed any loud noises, anyone behaving suspiciously, or any details out of place until she’d found Dreyer’s body. Not much to go on, as it turned out.
Once Levi had everything he needed, he thanked Granovsky for her time and showed her out of the interview room, handing her off to a waiting officer. Then he headed back to his substation; there were still a few matters he needed to take care of before he could put this case on the back burner and call it a night.
It was past 1 a.m. when his car service pulled off the North Strip and into the private entrance to the Residences at Barclay Las Vegas. Life on the Strip was still going strong, of course, pulsing with the bright lights and vibrant energy that had attracted him to the city in the first place, but he was too strung out with exhaustion to enjoy it the way he usually did. He tipped the driver and headed for the lobby of the dazzling fifty-story tower he’d lived in for the past two years.
Bobby, the night doorman, pulled the heavy glass door open for him. “Another late night, Detective?” he asked sympathetically.
“Unfortunately, yes.” Levi gave him a tired smile and waved to the concierge on duty, his shoes clicking on the marble floor as he crossed to the elevator bank. An elevator arrived within seconds; once inside, he slid a key card through a reader and pressed the button for the fiftieth floor.
When Levi had first met Stanton, at a fundraiser for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, he hadn’t known who he was. Oh, he’d known the name Barclay—it was impossible to miss, emblazoned above the Strip in flowing, diamond-bright script. But Stanton had only introduced himself by his first name.
It wasn’t until Levi had been getting ready for their first date, sharing his anxieties with Martine, that she’d put two and two together. The kind, charming man who’d flirted with Levi at the party and set him so at ease was in fact Stanton Barclay, young scion of a multibillion-dollar hotel empire.
Levi had almost canceled the date then and there. Martine had convinced him not to, and he was forever grateful to her for that. Though there were times when Stanton seemed like he hailed from a different planet—unavoidable, given the extreme privilege he’d grown up in—he was a genuinely thoughtful, caring man, sweet and generous to a fault.
Even if sometimes that sweetness and generosity did feel a bit smothering.
The elevator let Levi out into the penthouse’s private lobby. He unlocked the front door and slipped inside, moving quietly. Stanton had left the lights on in the foyer for him, dimmed low so they threw odd shadows onto the muted khaki walls and blond hardwood flooring.
Picking his way around the familiar shapes of the sleek, contemporary furniture, Levi headed across the penthouse to the master suite, where sheer drapes had been drawn over the enormous windows. Stanton was asleep in the bed.
Though Levi was falling-down exhausted, he took a thorough shower first—no way was he bringing the filth of a crime scene into bed with him. Clean and dressed in a pair of well-worn sweatpants, he crawled between the sheets.
Their king-sized mattress could fit three men abreast without touching, but Levi scooted all the way over until his chest was pressed to Stanton’s bare back. He draped an arm around Stanton’s waist, kissed his shoulder, and shut his eyes, taking comfort in the sleepy stir of Stanton’s body as he tried to block out images of a blood-soaked desk.
Levi slept in later than usual the next morning, only dragging himself out of bed when he was lured by the smell of fresh coffee. He pulled on a T-shirt and trudged in the direction of the kitchen, rubbing his sleep-crusted eyes with the heels of his hands.
Stanton sat in the sunny, glassed-in breakfast nook that overlooked the Strip, reading the Las Vegas Review-Journal while he ate—his regular daily routine. Levi paused on the threshold to watch him.
Martine had once joked that Stanton looked like a Disney prince, and it wasn’t much of an exaggeration. His skin was tanned from the Las Vegas sun, his thick brown hair swept back from his forehead in a classic style, and his blue eyes were fringed with surprisingly long lashes. He even had an honest-to-God chin dimple, something which fascinated Levi to this day. His trim build was similar to Levi’s, though with far less muscle tone.
“Good morning,” Levi said, entering the kitchen.
Stanton looked up from his paper with a smile. “Morning. How’d you sleep?”
Levi tilted his hand from side to side, then leaned down to kiss him. Stanton settled a hand on his hip, and Levi slid his own fingers into Stanton’s hair, enjoying the luxuriant soft texture.
It had been three weeks since they’d last had sex, though not for lack of desire. Stanton’s schedule was as hectic and unpredictable as Levi’s, and the few occasions they’d been able to arrange time together, one of them had always been too tired or stressed-out to get it up. Their uncharacteristic dry spell made Levi regret canceling last night’s plans even more.
“Are you hungry?” Stanton asked. He inclined his head toward his own plate of scrambled eggs and toast—no bacon, of course. Levi had been raised Reform, and he didn’t keep completely kosher, but he did abstain from pork and shellfish. Stanton had given up those same things when Levi had moved in. Although Levi would never have asked him to do that, he’d been touched by the gesture.
“Not really. Just caffeine-deprived.”
Stanton squeezed his hip and stood up, guiding Levi into a chair. “Sit down. I’ll get you a cup.”
Levi rolled his head from side to side to crack the tense vertebrae in his neck. A minute later, Stanton set a mug in front of him and resumed his seat. Lifting the mug to his lips, Levi took a grateful sip—black coffee with a shot of espresso, no cream or sugar.
“Thank you,” he said, inhaling the steam with pleasure.
They sat in silence for a while, Levi’s brain slowly clearing as Stanton leafed through his paper and finished his breakfast.
Eventually, Stanton asked, “Are you working today?”
“I have to.”
Though Levi braced himself for an argument, Stanton said nothing, just turned the page without looking up. He would never ask about the case itself, not only because he knew Levi couldn’t share details, but because he hated hearing about Levi’s job. He was one of the few people Levi had ever met who didn’t enjoy cop stories.
“Did your counseling session go okay, at least?”
Levi stiffened. This was the only topic of conversation worse than the one they’d just been on.
When Levi didn’t answer, Stanton glanced up, took one look at Levi’s face, and shut his paper with a sharp, angry flick. “Levi.”
“I didn’t have time—”
“You canceled again?”
“I had to work.” That was bullshit; Levi had canceled his session yesterday morning so he could squeeze in an extra hour with his Krav Maga coach before his shift. “And I didn’t cancel, I rescheduled—”
Levi’s mouth clicked shut and he looked away.
Stanton took his hand. “Levi,” he said gently. “You killed a man.”
The words were like ice water dashed in Levi’s face. He shook Stanton off and snapped, “I know what happened, for fuck’s sake.”
“You had to. You did the right thing. But anyone who knows you can see it’s eating you alive. You’ll never be able to move past this unless you work through it. Let Natasha help you.”
Levi shook his head, though it was in frustration, not refusal. He’d always liked Natasha, one of the counselors in the LVMPD’s Police Employee Assistance Program, but even talking to her about the shooting was so torturous that he’d rather pull his fingernails out at the root.
“You don’t really have a choice. Your lieutenant mandated six sessions, and you’ve only been to three.”
Levi stayed mulishly quiet. He hated emotional confrontations, did everything he could to avoid them, and Stanton tended to take advantage of his discomfort by pressing harder and harder.
“Do you have any idea what it does to me, watching you walk out that door every day not knowing if you’ll come back?” Stanton said after a long moment.
“Do you know what it’s like to know you’re out there, putting your life on the line all day long, and there’s absolutely nothing I can do to protect you?” Stanton reached out to take hold of Levi’s chin; Levi didn’t resist, letting Stanton turn his face toward him. “Are you really going to make me worry about your mental health on top of everything else?”
“That’s not what I’m trying to do.”
“I know.” Stanton rubbed his thumb over Levi’s lower lip. “So if you won’t do the counseling for yourself, will you at least do it for me?”
Levi pulled Stanton’s hand away from his face, but he kept hold of it, lacing their fingers together. “Yes.”
“Promise me,” said Stanton. “Promise that you’ll call Natasha today and reschedule the session for as soon as possible.”
“I promise,” Levi said.
* * * * * * *
Dominic’s feet pounded along the sidewalk as he ran his usual route through the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Rebel easily kept pace by his side, loping along with boundless enthusiasm but never pulling at her leash or trying to steer them off course.
The weather was beautiful, clear and sunny in the mid-seventies, a perfect April day. Dominic enjoyed it while he could—pretty soon, he’d have to move his runs up to early morning or take them inside altogether. Running outside in Las Vegas in the summer was a quick way to drop dead of heatstroke.
They finished their five-mile circuit before returning to the parking lot where he’d left his pickup. He grabbed a towel from the cab to wipe down his face and neck, then retrieved a bottle of water from a cooler, unfolded a collapsible dog dish, and filled it up. Rebel watched him, panting happily, her tongue lolling out of her mouth.
He ruffled her head and set the bowl down. “There you go, sweetheart. Good girl.”
He monitored her water intake carefully—he was paranoid about her getting bloat—and took it away when he judged she’d had enough. Once they’d both rehydrated and he’d changed into a fresh shirt right there in the parking lot, they drove over to Roberto’s Taco Shop, a counter-serve Mexican joint on the other edge of the campus.
He backed the truck up to the front window and had Rebel sit in the bed so he could keep an eye on her while he went inside. After he’d ordered, his attention was drawn to a rack of advertisements and pamphlets for attractions on the Strip and Downtown.
Almost against his will, he picked up a flyer for a promotion the Hard Rock was running for point multipliers on video poker. He’d just deposited the check for last night’s bounty; he could carve out a portion of the money, just a small one, and play with that. Only for a little while. He’d stop when he lost it. He would . . .
Even the fantasy had his breath speeding up, his pulse racing. He could feel it—the surge of adrenaline from placing a large bet, the thrill of getting on a hot streak and chasing the big score. The headrush triggered by victory, even the painful tease of a near loss . . . It was a euphoria unlike anything else in the world.
Closing his eyes, he crumpled the slick paper in his fist. There is no such thing as safe gambling, he thought, falling back on the familiar mantra. Control is an illusion. There is no such thing as safe gambling.
He opened his eyes and looked over his shoulder to where Rebel sat in the truck, tracking him through the glass. She was waiting for him to get his ass back out there and take her home. She depended on him to protect her, just as she protected him, and in order to do that, he had to keep his shit together.
He tossed the flyer in the trash and turned to the counter as they called his name.
Carting several packed bags of food, he pulled into the parking lot of his nearby apartment building just a few minutes later. It was a simple concrete U built around an inner courtyard with a pool, a bit run-down, but what it lacked in aesthetics, it made up for in friendly neighbors.
He let Rebel off her leash once they’d entered the gate; she was well socialized to all the residents. Waving to Mrs. Muñoz and Mrs. Kim, who sat by the pool while their kids splashed away, he climbed the external staircase to the second floor and knocked on the door to 2G.
“It’s open!” Carlos called from inside.
Dominic frowned and stepped into the apartment. “Since when do you leave your door unlocked?”
“Jasmine’s been going in and out with the laundry.” Carlos sat on the couch, his chest wrapped in compression bandages with drains tucked on either side from the top surgery he’d had two days prior. He extended a hand to Rebel as she trotted up to greet him. “It’s just easier for her not to worry about taking the keys with her.”
Dominic dropped the takeout bags on the coffee table, then assessed Carlos closely. He looked good—healthy color in his golden-brown skin, no circles under his eyes. Unshaven, but he was growing his beard out anyway. “How you feeling?”
Carlos shifted himself into a more comfortable position, rearranging the bright knit blanket thrown over his long legs. “Pretty good. It doesn’t hurt as much as I was afraid it would. What’s all that?”
“I stopped at Roberto’s after my run, so I figured I might as well get enough for three.”
“Dom,” Carlos said, “you don’t have to—”
The door opened again, and Jasmine came through carrying a huge basket of folded clothes. Dominic hurried over to relieve her of it.
“Thanks, Dom.” She rose onto her toes to kiss his cheek, her lip ring cool against his skin.
Dominic had met Jasmine first, literally running into her in the hallway the day he moved in. Shortly afterward, he’d been able to get Carlos a job at the club where he bartended, and they’d been good friends ever since.
“I didn’t know you were coming over,” she said.
“He brought lunch,” said Carlos.
She leveled him with a stern look. “Dominic—”
“Bedroom okay for these?” he asked, and hustled off with the laundry basket before she could say anything else.
Jasmine made good money as a tattoo artist, profiting off a steady stream of tourists intrigued by the idea of getting inked in Las Vegas, but they’d just dropped thousands on Carlos’s surgery, and he’d be out of work for a couple of weeks while he recovered. Though they were both touchy about accepting help, they had to be hurting.
When Dominic returned to the living room, neither of them brought it up again, even once it became clear that he’d bought far more food than three people could eat in a single sitting. Jasmine rustled up some of the hipster organic dog treats she kept for Rebel, and they gossiped genially about their neighbors while they ate. Afterward, he was able to make a clean getaway before they could insist he take any of the leftovers with him.
His own apartment was right next door. Rebel flopped into her dog bed in the corner of the living room, all tuckered out, but Dominic didn’t have the luxury of a nap. He took a quick shower, then sat at his desk and booted up his computer.
He usually had multiple cases going at once, so besides Ruiz, there were a few other bounties he’d been pursuing digitally over the past week. Most of them were straightforward. Honestly, in about eighty percent of his cases, he tracked the bail jumper down within one or two days—often somewhere anyone with half a brain would have known to look for them, like a friend’s house or their place of employment. Every now and then, however, he ran into a case that required greater creativity and focus.
Matthew Goodwin was one of those cases. He was a student at UNLV, one of several fraternity members who’d been charged with rape a couple of months ago, and the only one of his buddies to skip town before his court date. For all intents and purposes, he’d dropped off the face of the earth. Dominic had utilized every skip-tracing method known to man, interviewed every person Goodwin could have conceivably confided in, and he hadn’t been able to find a single sign of the creep for over a week.
He was starting to think Goodwin might have left the state, in which case he’d have to drop the case. Dominic didn’t chase bounties across state lines; it stirred up too many messy legal issues, and he couldn’t take his gun with him.
He checked the status of each case in his current load, refreshing himself on the details and making a list of next steps in order of priority. It was a familiar routine, and he was operating so fully on autopilot that he almost breezed past the anomaly that should have jumped out at him right away.
There was a charge on Goodwin’s credit card.
Dominic stared at the screen. Keeping tabs on credit cards was one of the first steps he took with any bounty he didn’t find immediately, and Goodwin hadn’t used his the entire time he’d been missing. Yet, there it was in black and white—a charge for $5.05 at 12:22 p.m. today, at a gas station up north, less than an hour outside Vegas.
For a moment, Dominic felt a stirring of suspicion. Goodwin had successfully evaded pursuit for longer than most bounties. Why slip up now, in such an obvious way, and for such a small purchase?
Then he shook his head, deciding he was being paranoid. People on the run made mistakes. They got tired, or they got overconfident, and they gave in to one small moment of weakness or stupidity that got them caught. His profession depended on that.
Chasing down and bringing in Goodwin would be a lot more satisfying than going after a scared kid like Ruiz. With any luck, Goodwin would put up just enough resistance for Dominic to have an excuse to rough him up a bit, give him a taste of his own medicine. Dominic’s blood ran hotter at the thought.
“Got you, you rapist sack of shit,” he said, grinning as he scribbled down the gas station’s address.
Sometimes bounty hunting was almost as good as gambling.