Read an Excerpt
It was like some small-town parade back home. Men, children, women carrying babies—everyone was smiling and singing as they passed the young American soldiers on a pitted street in Baghdad.
Trying to find relief in the shade of the awning above the bank entrance, Sam found himself humming along to their tune. Anything to distract himself from the oppressive heat.
"Gun! Shooter!" It was Vince. Clearly panicked. Sam lifted his M16 and—
Sat bolt upright in bed. In Las Vegas. Drenched in sweat.
He peeled off his T-shirt as his cell phone rang. Sam checked the caller ID before answering. The call originated from the Sicilian Casino. Assuming it must be Vince, he answered, "Knight, here," while he pressed his palm to his damp forehead, hoping to ease the ache behind his eyes.
"Hungover again?" Aldo Patrizio's cold voice penetrated through his headache.
Half a beer could only account for the bad taste in his mouth, but Sam didn't correct his friend's grandfather. The call itself was unusual enough. "You wanted something?"
"I've got a job for you. There's a group of card counters becoming more bothersome at small places up and down the Strip. I need you to find them."
Cardsharps, or counters, kept track of the cards played in blackjack and increased their odds of winning by calculating the odds of cards coming into play. Casino managers considered playing by a system cheating. Sam thought being smart was fair, but who was he to judge when there was a paycheck involved? If only it wasn't Vince's grandfather asking.
"And don't tell me you already have work.You could do those background checks in your sleep," Patrizio added.
So much for thatexcuse. "Mr. Patrizio—" "If you provide me with their names I'll make it worth your while." The older man named an attractive figure that would boost Sam's sagging bank account. It was a fee nearly triple what Sam might have charged. There was more going on here than a request for services.
His jaw tensed. "Why me?"
Aldo's laughter grated on Sam's nerves. "If you're anything like your father, you're good at locating people. Call Sabatinni to confirm it's them and I'll take care of the rest."
Rick Sabatinni was a retired cardsharp who consulted with the casinos. Sam had done some surveil-lance on Sabatinni's wife—now ex—last winter, and still had his number. Of course, a man like Aldo Patrizio would know about that. The old man knew just about everything that went down in Vegas.
"Vince isn't going to like this." Sam was still toying with the idea of turning the casino owner down. Vince Patrizio wasn't exactly on the best of terms with his grandfather and, having served with Vince in Iraq, Sam was protective of the younger man.
"He'll like it a lot better than if I had hired you to follow him. Having family hire someone to investigate you is low, don't you think?" Mr. Patrizio disconnected.
So the old man knew Vince had hired Sam to look into his activities… This did not bode well. Sam stumbled the few feet from his bed to his kitchen and swallowed more than the recommended dose of aspirin. At a rumbling beneath him, he squinted out the window, to see Vince backing his spanking-new black Porsche out of the garage.
Sam measured coffee, poured water and leaned against the counter while he waited for his first cup, waiting to feel the peace his Spartan garage apartment, uncluttered by reminders of his past, usually provided. Nada. Getting out of the job would be next to impossible. The trouble was Mr. Patrizio was setting Sam up.
His cell phone rang again, but it was his sister, and Sam let it go to voice mail. Restless, he paced the twenty steps from the kitchen to the front door, only pausing when his phone beeped to indicate there was a new message. One of several from his sister Sam wouldn't pick up.
The stack of job applicants for Slotto Gaming Machines sat next to his computer on a round kitchen table, waiting for Sam's approval. He really should get them done today so he could get paid. Plus it was the perfect excuse not to troll the casinos for Mr. Patrizio's card counters. He opened the first folder.
Annie Raye. The name conjured up innocence and sunshine. Sam disliked her already. He sat at the table and logged on to his computer. Raye was her maiden name, but apparently she'd ping-ponged from Ms. Raye to Mrs. Jones and back to Ms. Raye.
Her driving record and credit history were clean. It would be a waste of time to check for a criminal record, but Sam did it anyway. While the computer chugged through several databases, he got himself a cup of coffee. He should just rubber stamp Annie Raye's application so she could get that exciting finance director job at Slotto's. Conducting a complete search was a waste of his time. He'd been doing background checks for Slotto's for months and he'd never found information to recommend not hiring anyone.
Sam sat back down, looked at the search results and nearly dropped his coffee mug.
ANNIE TURNED EAST AND headed toward the apartment
complex her dad said he was living in now. Located near the airport, it wasn't the nicest area, but Annie and her daughter needed a place to stay until her first paycheck came in.
"One, two, three green traffic lights ahead." Maddy crooned softly from the backseat. "One, two, three, four red cars. Why are there so many red cars?"
Because it was Sin City—the desert metropolis where dreams were made and broken—and red cars symbolized the flashiness of risk and stupidity. Annie's knuckles whitened on the cracked steering wheel as traffic slowed to a halt, leaving her stranded midinter-section two blocks from her destination. Horns honked as the green light turned yellow, then red. The jaywalkers jogged out of the way and Annie pressed on the accelerator.
"Big black cars. One, two-o-o!" Maddy wailed, kicking at the front seat. "You're going too fast, Mommy. I can't count."
"Maddy, when we get to Grandpa's house, could you stop counting out loud?" Annie's first priority upon moving back to Vegas was to find a babysitter. For now, she'd have to make do with her dad while she stopped by Slotto Gaming Machines to sign the paperwork before starting her new job. She wouldn't trust her dad with Maddy for more than an hour, two max. Not that he wouldn't keep her safe, but Brett Raye had a way of presenting gambling as a fun, exciting lifestyle.
"No, Mommy," Maddy said. "I love to count." Annie struggled to keep her voice calm. "Grandpa doesn't like it when people count."
Think fast, Annie. The last thing she needed was for her dad to discover her daughter's talents and mold them in ways that would scar poor Maddy for life. "Because…he can't count and it makes him sad to hear other people do it."
"I can teach him, Mommy. I have good numbers."
"Yes, you do, but Grandpa is too old to learn." If he knew Maddy had skill, he'd be up to his old tricks faster than Annie could say boo.
"Okay." Maddy sounded reluctant.
Annie turned into the Harvard Arms, an apartment complex aspiring to be a dump with its faded rock-and-cactus garden, cracked windows and peeling paint. The 1992 Toyota she'd paid eight hundred dollars for when they repossessed her Mercedes looked like the newest vehicle in the lot. Annie parked and let the car idle, reluctant to get out.
"Is this where Grandpa lives?" Maddy asked.
"We can't stay here." Annie's stomach soured. This was no place for her little girl. Why couldn't she get a break?
"Is that Grandpa? He has whiskers." Sure enough, Brett trundled down the concrete steps from the second story with a huge smile on his gaunt, wrinkled face. His wavy hair was gray and sparse. The years hadn't been kind. He looked far older than fifty-five.
"Annie!" He opened her car door, leaving her no choice but to turn off the engine and get out.
Her father grabbed her so tight that Annie felt his breath hitch, as if he might cry. Maybe she'd been wrong to keep her distance all these years…. Her doubt dissipated as her father held her at arm's length with that half grin he always used to give her just before he announced his latest scheme.
No. Annie had had enough of scheming men.
Her dad released her and opened the rear door, leaning in to see his granddaughter better. "And this must be Maddy. With those blond curls and bright blue eyes, you're as beautiful as your mother was at your age." Then her father ruined it by adding, "Do you play cards, Maddy?"
"No." Annie gave him a scathing look. "No cards." When his face fell, she had no trouble remembering why she'd kept her distance for six years. She took a deep breath. "Let me look at your place. If it's fine, I'll only be gone an hour or two." She unbuckled Maddy from her car seat. "I hope your bathroom is sanitary."
"It's not the Taj Majal, but it's clean, I swear." He led them upstairs, smiling in a way that made Annie realize how much this visit meant to him.
To her dismay, she noticed Maddy's lips moving as she climbed. She was counting the number of stairs to the top. Annie placed her finger briefly on her daughter's mouth and the little girl pressed her lips together.
"Did you lose the house, Dad?" Annie knew she shouldn't have bought it for him. She'd hoped her father would have changed. He was probably still hanging out with the same crowd of "could-have-beens" who wagered every nickel on the flip of a card and didn't seem to care where they lived, what they lost or if they had enough to retire on. "This is only temporary." He looked up as a jumbo jet barnstormed Harvard Arms on its way to land at McCarran International Airport and shrugged apologetically. "You get used to that."
"SORRY, I GOT BACKLOGGED, Carl." Sam set the stack of candidate files on the man's desk. Carl Nunes, Slotto's director of human resources, stared at Sam, who stood like a kid in the principal's office awaiting sentencing.
"It's all right. We haven't gotten the drug testing results back for most of these, anyway." The fluorescent lighting glinted off Carl's bald head as he turned the pile around with his short, plump fingers. "I hadn't realized your stack had gotten so large."
Like hell he hadn't. But Sam knew when to keep quiet. He turned away, pretending to admire the photos of Carl's family on a bookshelf by the door. The older man had three girls with toothy grins. Sam swallowed and sat in one of Carl's plastic visitor chairs, his back to the bookshelf.
"My practice is more demanding now." Sam had spent the early part of the week out at Lake Mead with his WaveRunner, practicing jumps.
"Good for you. We'll always be here for you, Sam…as long as you're here for us."
As hints went, it wasn't very subtle. Sam mumbled something reassuring and stared at his boots. Background checks were a lucrative business Vince had gotten him into after their stint in the war. Too bad Sam had to deal with Mr. College Graduate, I'm-better-than-you types.
If he took that job for Mr. Patrizio— "Any surprises?"
This was where Sam usually said no, unfolded his invoice, handed it to Carl and bolted for the exit. Carl was so used to the routine that he was already hefting the files onto the credenza behind him.
Sam leaned forward with a creak of plastic. "Actually, there's a problem with one."
Carl's pale forehead wrinkled. "What kind of problem?"
"Annie Raye. She's got an arrest record."
"Annie? There must be some mistake." Carl didn't need to search for Annie's file. Sam had kept it on top of the stack. "Everyone loves her. I already approved her moving expenses."
Damn if Carl didn't sound like the forgiving type. "She was arrested for embezzling. I think that makes her a bad choice as your new finance director." Sam pulled the invoice out of his pocket, smoothed out the creases and set it on Carl's fake-wood desktop. "Should I pick up more files from Winona on my way out?"