Chapter One - Deadly Odds
What a place.
Kate sat at a blackjack table organizing her chips into three stacks of the same height. The weekend crowd lugged suitcases and overnight bags through Casino Fortuna on their way to the atrium exit. What that atrium had cost, with its soaring ceiling, hand-carved molding and marble columns, she couldn't guess. Over 20,000 flowers formed vibrant floral sculptures, including an enormous and equally magnificent white floral elephant—the universal symbol for good luck.
Kudos to the designers for a spectacular job.
She evened out her chip stacks and, rather than destroy the uniformity, tossed the extras the dealer's way. Tipping dealers in a healthy manner would only help her. Dealers, like most service people, remembered their big tippers.
A sudden whoop came from the roulette table across the aisle and she glanced up. Someone had hit it big. Good for him. Hopefully, he wouldn't turn around and lose it all. As a rancher's daughter she understood the value of a dollar and how to make that dollar stretch during lean times.
Above her, a crystal chandelier sparkled, adding to the opulence and grandeur of the casino. Gamblers were dressed in designer clothes, some in suits, some more casual, but no doubt their wardrobes had come from high-end designers. The women dripped in diamonds because, well, when you were that rich, it didn't matter that it was barely 10:00 a.m. on Monday morning. No matter what time of day, diamonds were a girl's best friend.
Yes, Fortuna catered to high rollers, but this went beyond what Kate had pictured.
Waiting for the dealer to finish shuffling the deck, she watched the pit boss at the next table. He stood beside the dealer, ensuring the proper payout to a guest. Just one of the many functions of a pit boss who, by the end of his shift, would deal with the endless paperwork of player rating sheets, table wins, and credit slips.
Nothing about Fortuna's operation struck Kate as lax—yet—but the pit bosses were the least of her worries. At least right now.
Her immediate concern centered around the man with sandy blond hair and linebacker shoulders across the aisle. He stood to the side, studying her.
His eyes, she knew, would be a crystalline blue. She also knew those eyes could turn icy enough to slice a man—or woman—in two. They were, in fact, his biggest weapon and had brought many a bad guy down.
The tiniest of nods motioned her to the lounge just feet behind him. Dammit.
Before her dealer dealt a new hand, she shoved her chip stack toward him.
"Would you color me out, please?"
"Of course, ma'am." He slid the stack toward him. "Color coming in!"
The pit boss glanced back from the adjacent table and the dealer held his hands clear of the stack.
Satisfied with what he saw, the pit boss nodded. "Bring it in."
All of this, part of the normal routine of a casino keeping track of the money coming and going. A minute later, a stack of yellow chips—ten thousand dollars’ worth—took residence in Kate's purse and she slid from the stool. She walked to the end of the row of gaming tables and hooked another turn toward the lounge, a raised dais smack in the middle of the casino.
Heaven forbid a gambler should actually leave the casino simply to grab a drink or a bite to eat. No. What the casino wanted—particularly a casino of this level—was for their players, their whales, to sit comfortably while the lure of gaming, the temptation of the next big score, called them back.
At this hour, the lounge was half empty and she easily spotted Mark tucked into a small table in the far corner. Away from the few patrons filling the twenty-some tables.
She eased into the seat across from him, smoothing her dress against her thighs. She hated wrap dresses. Hated dresses period. Pretty much, anything beyond her cowboy boots and jeans was a bother. But for a gig like this she needed to dress the part.
"Fancy meeting you here," she said.
Mark propped his elbows on the table and leaned in, crowding her personal space a wee-bit too much, but she knew the drill. Mark needed any busybodies to think he was a man trying to get into a woman's undies —hers specifically.
Which meant he was undercover. She'd known Mark Blazedon for three years and he'd always, without fail, maintained a professional distance.
She might have just trampled across an FBI investigation.
A waitress wandered by and took their order. Club soda for Mark, water for Kate. Considering they were both apparently working.
He reached up, ran a finger down her cheek and smiled lovingly, but his eyes, well, they weren't so friendly. He could have frozen Bermuda with that glare.
"Hey, sunshine," he said, that smile still in place. "What the hell are you doing here?"
Oh, this might be fun. Not one to be outdone, Kate angled in, set her gaze on his lips, playing up her role in this little pseudo seduction. "I'm trying to cheat at blackjack."
"Un-huh. And why is that?"
"Seems I've been hired by Robert Samuels to evaluate the casino's security."
The waitress swung by, squeezed their drinks into the minuscule space between the two lovebirds and disappeared. Clearly the wait staff had been trained in ninja tactics.
"In fact," Kate said, "I was about to try a little hand-mucking when I spotted you. Good thing I didn't I guess. I wouldn't want you to arrest me."
Until six months ago, they’d both been FBI special agents who'd shared a friendly rivalry when it came to tracking down cheats—crossroaders, as the old-timers would say—in casinos.
"Un-huh," Mark said again. "You working both Fortuna and Dominion?"
"Just Fortuna. My boss has Dominion. Why?"
Mark shrugged. Please. As if he had no reason to inquire about her assignment other than curiosity. Nothing Mark Blazedon ever did was a random act. He knew something.
"Spill it, Mark. You know me. I'll find out what it is anyway. Besides, maybe we can help each other."
That ice blue gaze narrowed as he took a healthy hit of his club soda. He set the drink down, his fingers tapping the glass.
Almost there. Come on, Mark.
"There's a dealer," he said, "at Dominion. Dale Cousins. Something's sideways there."
A suspicious dealer. Now this was an interesting start. Knowing Mark, he wouldn't pony up any crucial info, but it couldn't hurt a girl to press. "Sideways how?"
Mark grinned. "You're lucky I gave you his name."
"You know I had to try."
"I'd expect nothing less. Tell me about your assignment."
And since he'd shared, she'd reciprocate. "Not much to tell. Yet. Samuels is stroking out over the crossroader cleaning out the casinos on the strip. He wants us to look at both of his properties and do a security review."
All in all, for Kate, an exceptional opportunity.
Mark finally sat back, glancing around, scanning the area in that critical way law enforcement people never shook loose from. Even Kate took a second to assess her surroundings. To organize her thoughts. Because as friendly as she and Mark were, at this moment, on a certain level, they were competitors.
Careers were made—and broken—by too much or not enough information. And part of the fun of it all was figuring out just how to get what they needed.
Something each of them understood.
A dark-haired man with a hooked nose stood beyond the railing of the raised lounge, well out of earshot. He wore the same tailored suit as most men in the casino and tapped at the screen of his phone, obviously preoccupied with whatever he had going on there.
Satisfied with the uneventful surroundings, Mark brought his attention back to her. "That nut Don Sickler runs security here. Do you know him?"
"Haven't met him, but I'm about to. I'm meeting with him and Ross Cooper, the new V.P. of casino operations, in an hour. Thought I'd get the lay of the land first."
In her former role as a special agent, she'd been working an undercover sting posing as a player in various casinos and Don Sickler's name had come up in her research. Mainly because the man was a throwback who, back in the day, thought nothing of introducing a cheat's vulnerable kneecaps to a baseball bat.
Mark let out a sarcastic laugh. "Sickler will hate this."
"Forget Sickler. I'm worried about Cooper. He's the golden boy. Gaming thinks he's a genius. He won't want me walking in here, digging in his sandbox. Not when they've barely been open a month."
"What have you got on him?"
A few loose strands of hair fell against her face, tickling her cheek. Damned hair. She should just cut it all off and be done. She flipped the long mass over her shoulder and smoothed it, wishing she had a hairband she could pop in. Ponytails, like jeans and boots, were a whole lot easier to manage.
"Cooper," she said, "was the right-hand guy to the casino operations veep at Dominion. The original plan was for him to take over Dominion when the current guy retires. Change of plans sent him to Fortuna. Word is Cooper wasn't happy about it. He's a player. Wharton grad who worked his way through business school dealing cards in a casino. He likes fancy clothes and beautiful women, but spends most of his time at work. According to Samuels, Cooper logs fifteen-hour days, six days a week. Generally, he's a tough boss, but people respect him."
Mark grinned, leaned in again. "So," he said in that casual yet baiting tone he did so well, "your face and tits got you this gig."
Kate rolled her eyes. Men. So predictable. "Mark," she said, "it may have been my face, but it certainly wasn't my tits."
Because her tits needed a double-padded bra to compete with some of the women running around this casino. The value of the plastic surgery, designer clothing and jewels in the place could support a small, impoverished nation for ten years.
None of which mattered right now. For six months she'd been trailing her boss around, trying to build her own reputation as a security specialist in Vegas. Now he was giving her a chance to fly solo.
"Does Samuels think they have a cheat at Fortuna?"
"No. But with this problem on the strip, he's not taking any chances. He called my boss yesterday. My boss then called me."
"Still working Sundays, I see. What's up with John?"
With no husband and kids, working Sundays wasn't a problem for Kate. At twenty-nine, she'd been in an on-again-off-again-finally-off relationship with a great guy—a Vegas PD homicide detective—who'd make a wonderful father and husband and yet...what?
She didn't know.
Well, maybe that was a lie. Maybe, deep down, she knew. Maybe, deep down she simply wasn't sure what she wanted and she wasn't about to ruin both their lives by allowing a marriage to happen.
Still, they hungered for the same things—a quiet life, a ranch where their kids could run around, no city distractions. That was the childhood Kate had experienced and wanted for her children.
When she had children.
Which didn't seem on the horizon any time soon.
Think about your career.
"That's over. We finally had to admit it."
"Sorry. He's a good man."
"He is indeed."
She took one last sip of her water, let the chill chase away the distraction of life as a single woman who spent her evenings cuddled up to client files. She set the glass down, whipped out a twenty for the waitress. "My treat," she said. "Call it a business expense."
Still playing her flirty role, she stood then bent low to whisper in his ear. "Good luck, my friend. I'm glad we ran into each other."
He nodded, his hair brushing against her nose. "Me too. Take care, Kate."
Monday morning and Ross Cooper couldn't think of a better way to start the week than reviewing Casino Fortuna's extremely healthy profit and loss statement. He propped his feet on the desk and studied the smudge on the toe of his right shoe.
"What the hell?"
He'd just polished the damned things last night. And spending the day walking around with a smudge on his favorite tasseled shoes would drive him batshit. Hell, a smudge on anything would drive him batshit. He liked a sense of order in his life and had long ago given up trying to change his OCD tendencies. At thirty-four, he was old enough to know certain things were part of his DNA.
Drawing his foot up, he used his thumb to wipe the spot. Better, but not perfect. His assistant gave him grief about the shoeshine supplies he kept in his office closet, but these were the times when all that stuff came in handy. Plus, he enjoyed shining his shoes. Something about the repetition, the attention to detail, the focus, relaxed him.
His office door swung open and in walked Don, Fortuna's V.P. of security. At the sight of Ross rubbing his shoe, the side of Don's mouth quirked. This should be good.
"Whatsa' matter, kid? You got a scratch on your Versaces?"
Temporarily dismissing the shoeshine idea, Ross sat back again, adjusted his shirtsleeves and gave Don a bored look. "A smudge. And they're Ferragamos. Did you see the numbers from last week?"
Don, dressed in his usual dark suit with the pocket square he swore made his short, round body appear taller, was one of those old school Vegas guys who'd been around no less than forty years and he, too, liked things done a certain way. A certain way that might get a cheater a few broken bones. Even with their healthy revenue numbers, Don had been extra diligent in getting the word out about Fortuna's top-notch security. Thus, discouraging those who thought they'd come into the newly opened Fortuna and try to rip them off.
"I saw them." He hitched his pants up and dropped into one of Ross's leather guest chairs. The overhead light glinted off his bald head and Ross considered a wisecrack, but opted against it. No sense getting him going first thing Monday morning. Tempting as it was.
"Don't get ahead of yourself, Wonder Boy," Don said. "That asshole of a crossroader working the strip could still make his way out here."
Out here was Lowville, Nevada, population 1,800, sixty miles outside of Vegas. Don and Ross's boss, Robert Samuels, the ever-present owner and taskmaster of Dominion Casino Corp., had built Fortuna as a sister casino to Dominion, located on the Vegas strip. Fortuna had opened just weeks ago and Samuels had high hopes for the venture. In short, he was depending on Don and Ross to make it a success.
Ross glanced out the floor-to-ceiling window to the stunning view of the foothills surrounding Lowville. He craved the view of the strip he’d had in his old Vegas office, but something could be said about the tranquil setting beyond his window. "You worry too much."
"I'm old. And in my line of work there's plenty to worry about."
Ross wouldn't argue either point. When it came to Don and his never-ending opinions, battles needed to be chosen. With Don's age came knowledge, and the ornery old bastard had taught him plenty about the casino business.
As good as Fortuna's opening had been, Ross hated being out in the boonies, away from the glitz and action of the strip. But here he was, helping his boss create a three-billion-dollar premier hotel-casino catering exclusively to the highest of the high rollers. Fortuna covered over two hundred acres and had been built with the finest marble, wood and crystal Samuels' money could buy. If a gambler didn't have a minimum twenty-grand to drop at each sitting, Fortuna wasn't interested. Not if they planned on hitting their $3 million dollar per day revenue goals.
And, way out here in a resort surrounded by mesas and foothills and state parks, distractions other than the ones Fortuna provided were limited.
Abandoning the landscape outside his window, Ross got to his feet and took in his other favorite view—the casino floor. Right below him was where it all happened. Even on a Monday morning the high rollers threw their dice, placed their chips and smacked buttons on the slots. Slowly, Ross scanned the tables, not really focused on one thing, but making sure anyone who looked up would see him watching. Always watching.
"Is Dominion's revenue still down?" Ross asked.
"Only mini-bac. Samuels is shitting elephants."
"He should be. My buddy at the PD said whoever this cheat is, he’s good. Three casinos are down a total of fifteen million. And they can't catch him."