Krewe of Hunters!
March 26, 2013
by Heather Graham
an excerpt . . .
Tension was high around the table, but then, there were thousands of dollars strewn out across the board, represented by colorful plastic chips.
Because this was Vegas, where men and women could rise like meteors to the top of the world, then plummet to the bottom just as quickly.
Jessy Sparhawk could feel the pressure, could feel the eyes of the other gamblers on her.
Some people were playing big money.
Others—idiots like herself—were taking a desperate, edgy, ridiculous chance, playing to beat the odds. To defy the gods of Vegas, who always proclaimed that the house won.
Oh, yes, she was an idiot. Why in God's name had she taken the last of her savings to the craps table? She worked in Vegas, she had grown up out here. She'd seen the down-and-outers. She'd seen the poor, the pathetic, the alcoholics, the junkies, all trying for a big win when they knew the law of averages.
"Ten, baby, roll a hard ten" a man called from the end of the table. He wasn't one of the down-and-outers. He was a regular all over town. She had seen him over at the Big Easy, and he had a deep Southern accent, but one with a Texas twang. His name was Coot Calhoun. All right, so his real name probably wasn't Coot, but that was how he was known. Nice man. He'd inherited one of the biggest oil fields in Texas. She liked him. He had a wife named Minnie—though Jessy was doubtful about that name, too—who he genuinely loved, and he tipped well because he was generous, not because he was expecting any favors.
"I'm trying, Coot, I'm trying," she assured him, praying for a hard ten not for Coot's sake but for Tim's.
She was here, gambling at the Vegas Sun, because shewasn't allowed to gamble in the casino where she worked, which usually didn't bother her, since she wasn't a gambler. The Sun was owned by a billionaire who had been in the casino trade a long time. Her own Big Easy was owned by Emil Landon. A rich man, yes. A very rich man. But he hadn't been at the casino game long. Even though she wasn't a gambler, she knew the games. She'd been a dealer, a hostess, a waitress, a bartender, a singer, a dancer—even an acrobat for a brief period of time. She knew Vegas in and out, backward and forward, and she had learned long, long ago, not to gamble, because the house always won.
"Baby, baby, baby, bee-you-ti-ful baby, do it. Hard ten," another man called. He was young. Drunk. Probably had too much money on the board, and definitely had too much alcohol in his system.
She was aware of so many people watching her. It had been kind of fun at first, but now she felt the tension. Even Darrell Frye, one of the Sun's pit bosses, was watching her with a measuring stare, as if afraid she was on one of those long rolls that totally outweighed the odds.
"Ten, ten, ten," a nearby woman repeated fervently. She was haggard looking, thin, and her dress had been stylish twenty years ago, back when she had been pretty. Now her features bore the weight of time, but she offered Jessy a smile, and Jessy smiled back.
"Get on with it," someone else insisted. "Just roll."
She did. To her horror, the dice bounced off the table.
"Hey, it's all right, just a game," said a deep, smooth, masculine voice.
She looked up. The man who had spoken was several people away to her left, and she had noticed him earlier. He was the kind of man it was hard not to notice. He wasn't typically handsome, and certainly not a pretty boy, but he had what she could only call presence. Tall, with broad shoulders, he managed to be simultaneously casual and elegant, and rugged on top of that.
She flashed him a smile. He wasn't drunk; he had been sipping the same drink since she had started watching the table. She was five-ten and wearing heels, but he towered over her by several inches. His eyes were so dark that to call them brown would be an injustice. His hair, too, was almost ebony, and the striking cut of his cheekbones made her think there had to be Native American blood in his background, and maybe not far back. He was simply striking, dressed in a white pin-striped shirt open at the neck, a nicely fitted jacket and black jeans. He hadn't been risking big money, but he had played as if he knew something about the game, and he'd been playing the same money since she first noticed him. And he seemed to be watching for more than just the roll of the dice.
He lifted his glass to her and looked over at the dealer as he tossed out two hundred-dollar chips. "Hard ten for me and for the roller," he said.
"You don't need to—" she began.
"Jessy, just roll, sweetie," Coot called to her, then turned to the croupier as he picked up two chips himself. "My money is on the little lady. Throw this on the hard ten, one for me, one for her, please."
His hundreds went down.
More chips were thrown down on the hard ten, plenty of them for her, and she knew that she was blushing.
"Thanks," she murmured, looking at the man who had started it all. The pressure was really on now. A so-called "hard" bet paid really well.
But there was a lot of money to be lost if she failed.
Her handsome benefactor said, "Don't worry. It's going to be a hard ten. And if it's not, it's all right. I never put down what I can't afford to lose."
She wished she could say the same thing. But at this point, she was desperate. If she didn't come up with the money, she couldn't pay to keep Timothy in the home. She could see Mr. Hoskins' face now, as he calmly told her, "I'm sorry, Miss Sparhawk, but there's nothing we can do. I've been as patient as I can, but if I don't have that three thousand dollars by tomorrow morning, you'll have to find another facility."
She hated Hoskins. He was a thin-lipped, nose-in-the-air jerk, but he only ran the Hawthorne Home; he wasn't the one who spent time with Tim. And Tim loved Jimmy Britin, the orderly, and Liz Freeze, his nurse. And Dr. Joe, who was a wonderful man, who worked at the home in order to be able to afford to donate his time at several local shelters.
A hard ten. If she rolled a hard ten, two fives, she made not just her own hundred-dollar bet, but… ten times that hundred. Plenty of money to keep Timothy where he needed to be.
She swallowed hard and rolled the dice.
"Hard ten, hard ten!" It became a chant.
She had never seen dice roll for so long on a craps table. A four and a three…and groans went around the table, because a seven meant that she would crap out. But the dice were still rolling….
A five and a three.
A five and a two.
A five and…
A five. A hard ten.
The screaming and shouting was deafening. Hands clapping, high fives all around. She wasn't sure who picked her up and swung her around, but she didn't protest that any more than she protested the hugs and backslaps that came her way, or even Coot's enthusiastic kiss on her cheek. She was simply too stunned.
The one man who didn't grab her or go insane was the tall, dark-haired stranger. He just watched her, pleased, and yet somehow grave.
Jessy couldn't believe the number of chips coming her way.
"I'm cashing in," she told the dealer.
He gave her an odd look. "You're still rolling," he reminded her. "If you leave, these folks will lynch me. Don't pass the roll. Go until you crap out."
She glanced to the side, looking for the dark-haired stranger.
He was gone; of course. He wasn't rolling. Still, she missed him. And she had the oddest feeling that things weren't going to go right, now that he was gone. And she was right, because it wasn't long until she crapped out. Still, as she collected her chips, which were still worth far more than the three thousand dollars she needed, everyone regaled her as if she were a celebrity. She thanked them, then turned, eager to escape as quickly as possible.
That was when the huge man plowed into her.
Huge. Bodyguard huge. He was bald and built like a wall of solid rock. His eyes were hazel and streaked with red.
"Hey!" Coot yelled indignantly.
It didn't stop the man, who hit her so hard that he knocked her flat onto the craps table, then fell on top of her.
She was pinned, and when she tried to budge his weight, she couldn't. She started to ask the onlookers for assistance, but her words were cut short by someone's shrill, hysterical scream.
And then she felt the blood trickling down on her as she struggled under the man's weight.
His dead weight…
His glazed and frozen eyes stared at her, and then his mouth moved.
He spoke one word.
And then his lips stopped moving and something, some light, went out in his eyes.
She tried to twist out from beneath him, and that was when she saw the knife sticking out of his back, saw the blood, and began to scream herself.
Dillon Wolf heard the screams just seconds after he had stepped into the special "high-roller" section of the casino. He spun around, returning at a breakneck speed, and arrived back at the craps table just as casino security descended on it. He saw the beautiful redhead he'd staked earlier, desperately trying to push the weight of the huge man off her, and he saw the man's face almost as quickly.
Tanner Green. Hell.
He'd spent most of the night keeping track of who was coming and going, trying to get a handle on who was frequenting the new casino, and the last damn thing he'd imagined was Green turning up dead. The man was a pro. Had been a pro. Not only that, before rejoining the world,he'd worked as a mercenary; there was no way in hell he should have been taken by surprise by anyone. But a knife in the back? That pretty much screamed surprise.
The fact that the police would want the body left in situ didn't prevent him from diving in to help the redhead free herself as quickly as possible.
"Hey, hey!" one of the security officers said, hurrying forward, but he ignored the man.
"Thank you," the redhead whispered as he shifted her free of the corpse and she managed to get back on her feet. For a moment, though, her eyes were on his. Huge. A deep, radiant blue, like a cloudless sky. Those eyes had first met his just a few minutes earlier as she rolled the dice. Now he also noticed that she smelled good, not to mention that she felt good against him.
As soon as he saw that she was steady, he delved into his pocket for his ID, presenting it to the security officer.
"Dillon Wolf, licensed P.I.," he said. "Have the police been called?"
"The 911 has gone in, they'll be here momentarily," the security officer said. Two of the men accompanying him had already begun to form an invisible ring around the craps table; two more were hurrying over to bar the door.
"Oh God, I have to get out of here. I have to get out of here!" a woman cried hysterically.
"Calm down," Dillon said, his voice taking on a deep authoritative pitch. He had long ago learned that people didn't obey high voices in an emergency; they only became more hysterical.
The redhead was silent, but he saw that she was shivering. Something in her eyes told him that she knew she was going to be there for a long time, the center of a murder investigation. She was stunning, absolutely stunning, and something about her intrigued him. Las Vegas was full of gorgeous women, of course—showgirls, waitresses, actresses, singers—but she seemed different somehow.
When he'd first noticed her, those eyes of hers had been… haunted. Not as if she was afraid of losing a dream, certainly not as if she was afraid of simply losing… money, but as if she was terrified of losing something far more precious. As if the roll of the dice could cost her her very soul.
He gave himself a mental shake. He had other things to think about here. Not only was there a dead man lying on the craps table, but that dead man was Tanner Green.
A man came striding onto the scene. A big guy with an attitude. Jerry Cheever, Las Vegas homicide. Dillon was pretty sure that Cheever resented him, but Cheever knew the lay of the land. He might despise Dillon on every level, but he'd been told by his bosses that Dillon was to be granted free rein. Cheever liked his paycheck and his position, so he obeyed, but he also liked to take credit for things that went well, and he knew Dillon had a talent for seeing an investigation through, and he wasn't above taking advantage of that fact.
Especially because he simply wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer.
"No one move!" Cheever bellowed. "And I mean no one!"
He took note of the blood seeping into the green felt tabletop and soaking the multicolored chips.
"Wolf," he said curtly, acknowledging Dillon's presence. His eyes settled on the redhead as he asked Dillon, "What happened?"
"I wasn't here. I ran over when I heard the screaming," Dillon said.
Jerry Cheever turned to the redhead.
"What happened?" he demanded curtly.
"I was leaving the table. This man came over and… and fell on me," she said.
"Do you know him?" Cheever demanded.
"I've never seen him before," she said.
"You're sure?" Cheever pressed.
"Absolutely sure," she said with confidence. She was still trembling slightly. Not surprising, Dillon thought, given that she was wearing the dead man's blood.
"Are you hurt?" he asked her quietly.
She shook her head.
Cheever took in the corpse. "Christ! It's Tanner Green." He glared at Dillon again. "Aren't you two working for—"
"Yes," Dillon said curtly.
"But you weren't together?"
"Lieutenant Cheever, the M.E. is here," a newly arrived police officer informed him.
"Give him room. No one gets out those doors, do you hear?" Cheever said.
A murmur arose from the crowd, but Cheever wasn't disturbed. "Give your payouts, close your tables," he commanded the casino employees, then turned to his fellow officers. "I want men posted at all the doors. No one leaves here without presenting ID and a valid local address, and not until they've been questioned. Are we understood?"
© Heather Graham Pozzessere 2009