For ex-cop Tony Valentine, life in balmy Florida provides little R&R. In fact, he’s in demand now more than ever. Armed with a special grift sense, Valentine can spot card cheats and even bigger game whose sole purpose on earth is to relieve a casino of its cash. But when his son, who was going to card-counting school, goes missing, Valentine jets to Las Vegas. Once in town, he is pressed into service—and lands inside a treacherous game with higher stakes than he has ever encountered before.
There’s a new casino in town, aptly named Sin, the largest on The Strip: three thousand guest rooms and a gambling floor as big as an airport terminal. The owners of Sin want Valentine to show them how the scams are done. But these powerful men harbor ulterior motives: They want to use their newfound skills to put a rival casino out of business.
Sin’s competition is the Acropolis, run by Valentine’s longtime pal. Nick taps Tony to figure out how an amateur won $50,000 at his blackjack tables. But the small job is full of landmines. For starters, the suspect bears a strong resemblance to his late wife. What’s more, Valentine’s son is still M.I.A. Upping the ante, a dead stripper is found with Valentine’s calling card—and her grief-stricken boyfriend is vowing revenge.
Yet in a city where barracudas wear pinstripes, time seems motionless even while it flies, and reality and illusion shift depending on the neon light, a greater threat maneuvers through the streets: an all-new breed of criminal with an agenda propelled by fury that will shake not just Valentine, but the city of Las Vegas.
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James Swain is the bestselling author of Grift Sense, Funny Money, and Sucker Bet, and is considered an authority on crooked gambling and casino scams. He lives in Odessa, Florida, with his wife, Laura, where he is currently at work on his fifth Tony Valentine novel.
Visit his Web site at www.jimswain.com.
The most desirable women in Las Vegas didn’t live there. They lived in southern California and worked as dental hygienists, aerobic instructors, and nurses. They lived regular, nine-to-five lives. Then, on the weekend, they flew to Las Vegas—usually on Southwest, because it had the most flights—got off the plane, and became different people. Their names changed, and so did their hairstyles and their clothes. It was as if a magic wand had been waved over them, although the change was anything but magical.
They became strippers in the gentlemen’s clubs that hung on the periphery of the Las Vegas Strip. They paid the club owners two hundred bucks a night and made the money back in twenty minutes from drunken men wanting a friction dance. On a good night, they took home a grand.
It wasn’t that these women were more beautiful than the women who lived in Las Vegas. Vegas was filled with knockouts. What made them different was that they weren’t used to being treated like garbage, which was how most women in Vegas got treated. No, these women still had dreams. They lived in la-la land, and it came through on their faces every time they smiled.
Her name was Kris, and she danced at the Pink Pony.
Lieutenant Pete Longo of the Metro Las Vegas Police Department had met Kris while responding to a call about a fight. Normally, he would have let a uniform deal with it, only the prospect of seeing naked women dancing against a backdrop of sporting events projected on a colossal screen had propelled him into action. That, and not having to see his wife for another hour.
The fight was between a drunk and a bouncer, and it was over Kris. The drunk was a big, corn-fed kid from the Midwest who’d trapped Kris in a VIP booth. She was naked save a G-string and looked scared out of her wits. Petite, blond hair, great figure, and her own breasts. Not the prettiest woman he’d ever seen, but damn close.
Longo had acknowledged her with a thin smile. Then he’d tried to arrest the drunk. The drunk had responded by spitting on him.
Longo was pretty fat. His mother called him chubby, but that was his mother. Beneath the flab was some real muscle. In the gym, he could bench-press his weight. Most guys his size couldn’t do that. And he knew how to fight.
He knocked the drunk out with two punches. It had impressed the hell out of the bouncer, an African American kid whose Italian suit had gotten torn in the scuffle. And it had impressed the gaggle of patrons and strippers standing nearby. But who it impressed the most was Kris.
“Ohhh,” she’d squealed as the Midwest Mauler fell.
Longo made the bouncer sit on him. Then he’d taken off his jacket and draped it over Kris’s shoulders.
“You okay?” he asked.
She closed the jacket around her and nodded her head.
“Did he hurt you?”
She shook her head. “That was really cool,” she said.
“What’s your name?”
“Starr,” she said.
“Your real name.”
That had gotten her. The hint of a smile crossed her lips. “Kris.”
“You’re not from around here, are you?” he said.
That had been six weeks ago. Pulling into the driveway of Kris’s townhouse in his brand-new Ford Explorer, Longo found himself shaking his head. It felt like they’d known each other six years. Every time they’d gotten together—every single encounter—had been the stuff dreams were made of. Beeping his horn, he looked expectantly at the front door.
A minute passed. He rolled down his window and sucked in the brisk desert air. It was early April, his favorite time of year. Warm days, cool nights; perfect sleeping weather. He tapped his horn again.
When she didn’t come out, he slipped out of the SUV. The garage door was open, his old Mustang convertible sitting in the space. He’d given it to Kris so she’d have wheels on the weekends. He’d concocted an elaborate story for his wife, only she’d never asked him what he’d done with the car. Too happy with the new Ford Explorer, he guessed.
Cindi was funny that way. Since their marriage had gone on the rocks, she had stopped questioning where the money was coming from. They went on nice vacations twice a year, drove new cars, and had money in the bank. All on his crummy detective’s salary.
The front door was locked, and he trudged around back. Taking the spare key out of the flowerpot, he unlocked the back door. He waited expectantly for the alarm’s piercing whine. When it didn’t sound, he went in.
“Hey, Kris, it’s me. They stop serving breakfast at nine. We need to hurry.”
Still no answer. Probably in the bathroom, doing her hair. Kris looked like a cheerleader when she wasn’t stripping. She was a stickler about keeping the place clean, and he slipped off his shoes and padded silently into the living room.
Right away he knew something was wrong. The air smelled funny, and he spied a half-smoked cigarette lying on the glass coffee table. Kris had flown in the night before and called him from the club. Said she was going to dance until three am, then go to the townhouse. He was to pick her up at eight thirty for breakfast. A simple plan, although he now realized that someone had come home with her.
Lifting his eyes, he stared at the hallway that led to her bedroom. Were they in there, sound asleep?
He took a deep breath. Being a cop twenty years, he’d come to know the seven deadly sins pretty well. Betrayal was the worst. It shattered everything you held to be true, and was as damaging as a bullet to the flesh.
He cracked her bedroom door and peeked inside. Kris lay beneath a leopard-skin blanket, eyes shut, her wheat-gold hair displayed luxuriously on a pillow. His heartbeat quickened. Every time he saw her, he felt like a high school senior with his life stretched out before him, not some fat, forty-five-year-old bozo with two kids and a wife he couldn’t stand.
Longo opened the door fully and stared at the bathroom door. Was her friend with the cigarette in there? His eyes canvassed the room and spotted Kris’s clothes folded neatly on a chair. It was a little ritual she performed whenever they made love. It always made him smile.
Her eyelids remained shut. He stepped into the room. His instinct told him to check the bathroom first, and his heart told him to check her. His instinct won out, and he kicked the bathroom door open. Empty.
He sat on the edge of the bed. It was a motionless water bed, so comfortable that they’d once slept for ten hours straight. He looked down at her. The color was draining from her face, her exquisite features turning hard.
He didn’t want to believe she was gone, his heart winning out over his instincts. He lifted the blanket with the tip of his finger and saw where the bullet had entered her body, and taken her life.
Her killer had been kind. He’d shot her through the heart, and he guessed she’d died instantly. Lowering the blanket, he rose from the bed, looked at the ceiling, and tried not to sob.
Only one thing to do. Get in the Explorer and burn rubber. He couldn’t be caught here. He looked down at her a final time.
“I love you so much,” he whispered.
Putting his shoes on in the kitchen, Longo stared at a pair of socks sitting on the table. He’d left the socks here last weekend. In typical Kris-fashion, she’d washed and folded them. As he picked up the socks, the words Oh, no, escaped his mouth.
How many more of his things were in the townhouse? And what about his fingerprints? They were probably on every doorknob and light fixture. And Kris’s phone bills, the investigating detectives would surely look at those. All trails would lead directly back to him.
He pulled a chair out from the table and dropped his massive bulk into it. He was about to become a suspect in a murder investigation. The detectives in charge would not be his friends. They would look at his lifestyle, questioning his expensive vacations and the new cars he bought every year. What was he going to tell them? That he found a bag of money behind a casino?
Or would he tell them about the department’s secret slush fund, and how money was being siphoned from the bank accounts of well-known wise guys. The wise guys weren’t shouting about it, knowing a bribe when they saw one.
He couldn’t do that. That would be suicide.
He would lie about the money.
“Jesus Christ,” he said aloud.
He’d get thrown off the force, and Cindi would surely leave him. His teenage daughters would shun him, and his parents wouldn’t be too thrilled, either. His life was about to be ruined. And all because he’d gone and fallen in love.
Standing, he slid the chair beneath the table. The leg hit something soft, and he looked beneath the table and saw a black gym bag. The bag was open and stuffed with casino chips from several different casinos. He pulled it out and let his fingers run through the chips. Reds, greens, purples, and yellows. There was even a brown chip. You didn’t see those very often.
He blew his cheeks out. There was twenty grand here, easy. This was worse than bad. He couldn’t explain this. And if there was any part of the story the investigators would want explained, it was why twenty grand in casino chips was in Kris’s townhouse.
Zipping the bag closed, he saw a sliver of paper tucked in a side pocket. He pulled it free. It was an embossed business card, and he stared at the raised lettering.
Grift Sense International Gaming Consultant Tony Valentine, President 727/591-5115
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