CINDY GERARD - New York Times Bestseller
 

 

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excerpt

WHISPER NO LIES - Book No. 3 - "Black Ops Inc. "
CHAPTER 1

It was business as usual at Bali Hi Casino on the Vegas strip, which meant that every nut job and wacko who could arrange bail was on the prowl.  Crystal Debrowski figured that in her seven years working casino security that she’d pretty much heard every come-on line and proposition written in the casino crawlers and lounge lizards handbook.  That was because Crystal was what her friend, Abbie Hughes Lang, referred to as a man magnet and yeah, Crystal knew what men saw when they looked at her: Sex on a stick.  Pixie features, spiky red hair and fairy-green eyes.  Show girl breasts and round hips that swayed to a sultry beat when she walked and drew heartbreakers and bizarros from the four corners of the earth. 

She’d been lied to, cheated on, hit on and proposed to.  Just when she’d thought she’d heard it all, though, this guy sweetened the pot.  Her latest admirer – a Mr. Tran Hoang according to the business card sporting an embossed Komodo dragon emblem – had come a long way for a let down. 

Wait until she told Abbie about this joker.

She glanced from Mr. Hoang to the man who appeared to be his assistant.  “I don’t believe I caught your name.”

“Wong Lee.”

Wong Lee was a flunky and a flake, just like his boss. 

Lee, a Jackie Chan look alike, appeared to do all of his boss’s talking for him.  Talking that included propositioning Crystal at a one hundred dollar minimum blackjack table where she was filling in for one of her dealers who’d gone on a quick break.  Crystal was about ninety nine percent certain that the gist of Hoang’s offer ran somewhere in the neighborhood of: Him, lord and master.  Her, concubine and sex slave.

“Please tell Mr. Hoang, thanks, but no thanks,” she told Lee who hovered at her amorous suitor’s side like a pet gnat. 

Because she perpetuated the sex kitten image – a girl had to have some fun especially if that girl was thirty-one years old and lived in a world where few people took a woman seriously who wore four-inch platforms that topped her out around five-four – Crystal cut Hoang a little slack. 

That didn’t mean she was going for his insulting proposition.  And it didn’t mean she liked it.  She’d pretty much had it with the opposite sex.  Recently promoted to Gaming Manager at Bali Hi Casino, and with several heartbreaks under her belt, Crystal’s newly adopted motto was: Men.  Can’t live with ‘em.  Can’t tie ‘em to a train track and wait for Amtrack to do the deed.  Chalk her disenfranchisement up to a string of bad relationships where what the men in her life loved most about her was the fact that she jiggled when she walked.

Johnny Duane Reed was a recent example.  That cowboy had heartbreak written all over him and she’d be damned if she knew why every time he blew into town she ended up naked before he ended up gone.  Reed always ended up gone.

The latest case in point, however, stood before her tonight.  Mr. Tran Hoang did not look happy.  But then, it was hard to tell for certain.  His expression hadn’t altered since he’d appeared thirty minutes ago with Lee, his bodyguard slash man Friday slash interpreter slash faithful minion who did everything from wiping Hoang’s nose to placing his bets to offering up his stellar proposition.

“Did he understand that my answer is no?” Crystal’s gaze darted from Lee to Hoang as she turned the table back over to the dealer.  “Because, I’m thinking that if he did, now would be a really good time for him to leave.”

To stress her meaning, she made walking motions with her fingers.

Mr. Hoang, all five foot four inches of salt and pepper hair, Armani suit and Gucci loafers, continued to pierce her with squinty, narrow eyes the color of onyx.  His expression never wavered.

Was it anger?  Disappointment?  Gas? she wondered, as a fissure of unease tickled its way down her spine.

“Did you understand that my answer is no?” She averted her gaze from Mr. Personality to Lee, hoping to make it clear that it was time for the two of them to shuffle on back to Laos or Cambodia or Hong Kong – wherever - and out of her face so she could get back to business.

“Mr. Hoang understands your response but respectfully rejects your answer.”

She blinked.  “He said that?”  She hadn’t heard a word.

“Mr. Hoang is quite taken with you.  He expresses regret that you are reluctant to allow him the opportunity to get to know you better but must insist on your cooperation.”

 “No, seriously.  Is he like texting you or something because I never saw his lips move.”  This was so ludicrous it was almost funny.  The next words out of the Lee’s mouth, however, sobered her like a judge in night court.

“Miss Debrowski, please understand it would not be wise-“

“Wait.”  She cut Lee off with a hand in the air as unease shifted to alarm.  She didn’t wear a nametag and as Gaming Manager, practiced anonymity with the fervor of a religious zealot.  Yet this man knew who she was.  “How do you know my name?”

“Mr. Hoang makes it a point to know everything.  He is a very important and powerful man in our country.”

“Yeah, well, this is my country,” she informed Lee, searching the sea of gamblers and finally getting the attention of the security muscle on duty this shift.  “And in my country it’s neither polite nor acceptable for any man – important or otherwise – to impose his attention where it isn’t wanted.

“Max,” she said when the twenty something body builder walked to her side, pecs and biceps bulging beneath the navy t-shirt with a Bali Hi Security Force log printed on the breast pocket.  “Please escort these gentlemen out.  Their business here is concluded.”

It wasn’t that she couldn’t handle the situation but Max’s sheer size was enough to keep any potential ruckus from forming, let alone escalating.  She just wanted them gone.  Harmless or not, ridiculous or not, the two of them spooked her – and Crystal wasn’t easily spooked.

“You will regret this,” Lee said softly. 

“Already do,” she muttered under her breath, relieved when they bowed to Max’s muscle and allowed him to walk them across the casino floor toward the exit without incident.

“Tip, boss,” Sharon Keiler announced, drawing Crystal’s attention back to the table action. 

She nodded permission for Sharon to pocket the five-dollar toke, then went on about her business of scanning the action on the casino floor.

She had work to do.  Promotion came with a price.  Because she was who she was – a very small woman in a man’s world – Crystal had, had to work twice as long and twice as hard to earn her current position.  She was two weeks in to her Gaming Manager post and still learning the ropes.  The last thing she could afford to have happen was to let Mr. Moto of the ‘you will regret this’ parting statement, distract her from doing her job.

Everyone wanted to score in Vegas.  Everyone had an angle.  For every hundred no-luck and good-time gamblers, there was at least one among them intent on upping the odds in their favor.  It was her job to spot the cheaters - card counters, past-posters, hand-muckers, palmers, and techno wizards – whether they were on the payroll or on a weekend junket from Podunk, Missouri. 

A war whoop sounded from a bank of Lucky Seven slots.  Someone had hit it big.  She ambled over that way, prepared to offer the casino’s congratulations and assistance with the haul when that unsettling curl of awareness skittered down her spine again.

She stopped, spun around and found herself staring straight into eyes as cold as chipped ice.  The man was Asian, mid-forties, impeccably dressed in a black suit and blue silk tie – almost indistinguishable from Wong Lee’s attire.  He held her gaze for a long menacing moment, then turned and melted into the crowd.

“Spooky,” she muttered, then resumed walking – and ran headlong into a wall of muscle.

“Excuse me.” She backed up – encountered yet another Asian man.  Identical suit.  Similar tie.  Same hard, intense stare.

Again, he impaled her with an ominous look before he turned and walked away.

Damn, if her knees weren’t shaking when she forced herself toward the slot that was still dinging and whistling for the crowd that had gathered to see just exactly how much money the lucky player had won.

And damn if she’d knuckle under to yet another urge to turn and see if someone else was watching her. 

Screw them and the komodo dragons they slithered in on.  No way was she letting them see her sweat because by this time tomorrow, Mr. Tran Hoang and his ninja squad – and yeah, she figured those guys were with him – would most likely be sailing on a fast boat to China and her life would be back to normal.

Normal.  Right.  What was she thinking?  This was Las Vegas.

*   *   *

Three weeks later

Crystal was in trouble.  There was no question and no doubt that she was in deep, mucky dodo and she didn’t have one single clue how it had come to this.

First the counterfeit chips had shown up on the floor.  Each casino had a unique set of chips, distinguishable from other casinos and backed up with the appropriate amount of cash.  The counterfeit chips that had made their way into the inventory had been so identical to the Bali Hi chips that no one had spotted them until random UV testing had discovered the fakes then led their appearance back to her shift.

In and of itself, there was no reason to point fingers of blame Crystal’s way, but then things started to snowball.  One of her sections came up short for the evening shift’s take.  Tens of thousands of dollars short.  Computer security codes were breached by hackers.  Dozens of other little, yet vital security glitches – all on her watch – had her pulling her hair out.

So yeah, she became a subject of intense scrutiny.   And no.  She had no explanation, just a lot of sleepless nights trying to figure out how this was happening on her shift. 

She’d since triple covered all of her security measures, and prayed to the gods of roulette that she had a handle on things.  That’s when the thinkable happened.  Last night, twelve of the thirteen gaming tables under her direct supervision had been flooded with counterfeit twenty-dollar bills.  Whoever distributed them had taken the casino for close to two hundred K.

Now here she was, standing in her boss’s office listening to him tell her that someone had made an unauthorized entry into the vault using her access card. 

For the first time since he’d called her in here, Crystal breathed a sigh of relief.  Cameras monitored the vault twenty-four-seven-three-sixty-five.  If someone had used her card, it would be clear that it wasn’t her. “Check the videos.”

“We did,” Mark Gilbert, Director of casino security looked grim.  “The video surveillance developed a little glitch during the time in question.  The tape is blank.  Convenient, wouldn’t you say?”

Her heart dropped to her knees.  “You don’t seriously believe I’m stealing from you.”

Gilbert sat behind his massive mahogany desk and stared through her more than at her.  “I don’t want to, no.  But given the circumstances, Miss Debrowski, we have no choice but to place you on leave without pay.”

She swallowed back anger and frustration and tears.  Gathered herself.  “I understand.”  Actually, she didn’t but given the fact that the only case she had to plead was ignorance, what else could she say?  As Gaming Manager, Crystal was the last line of resistance.  The security breakdowns had occurred on her watch.  That not only made her negligent, it made her suspect. 

Gilbert pressed the intercom button on his phone.  “Send them in.”

The door opened.  Crystal looked over her shoulder to see two uniformed LVPD officers walked in.

The blood drained from her head, swamping her with dizziness.  Oh, God.  She’d been waiting for the other shoe to fall.  It hadn’t just fallen, it had stomped, then ground into her back with attitude.

She turned back to Gilbert, her heart pounding.  “You’re having me arrested?”

Her boss had the decency to look remorseful.  “I’m sorry.”    

He was sorry and Crystal was scared to death as the officers mirandized her and charged her with suspicion of grand larceny and embezzlement before they handcuffed her and led her out the door.

*   *   *

Four hours later

“And here I thought I was the only one who got to use handcuffs on you.”

Crystal looked up from the corner of the white cement block jail cell to see Johnny Duane Reed grinning at her from the other side of the bars.

Perfect.

Grinning and gorgeous, Reed was exactly the last person she wanted to see specifically because until today he had been the only one who had ever gotten to use handcuffs on her.

A vivid memory of her naked and cuffed to her own bed while Reed had licked Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey out of her navel was not the diversion she needed at this point in time.

She’d ask him what he was doing here but figured she already knew.  “Abbie called you.”

Abbie Hughes – now Abbie Hughes Lang – was Crystal’s best friend.  More than friend, actually.  They were as close to family as family could be without benefit of blood ties.  Crystal and Abbie had been through it all together.  All, possibly, except imprisonment.

“I was visiting the ranch,” Reed said.  “I was there when you called her.”

It figured that Reed would be back in Vegas and not bother to come and see her.  Not that she wanted him to.  Not that she cared. 

“I need a lawyer not a …” she paused, groping for the word that best described him.

“Lover?” he suggested with that cocky grin.

“Not the word I was searching for,” she grumbled but let it go at that.

“If you don’t want him, sugar, I’ll be happy as hell to take him.”

Her cellmate, Jasmine, shot Reed her best come hither hooker smile.  Reed of course couldn’t help himself.  He winked at her.

Jesus, would you look at him.  Hair too long and too blond.  Eyes too sexy and too blue.  Body too buff, ego too healthy.  Standing there in his tight faded jeans, painted on t-shirt and snakeskin boots, he looked like God’s guilty gift and he knew it.

So did Jasmine.  So did Crystal.  What she didn’t know was why she was so glad to see a man who played at life, played at love and played at caring about her.  That was the sum total of Reed’s commitment quotient.  He played at everything.

“How you holding up, Tinkerbelle?” he asked gently.

Oh, God.  He actually sounded like he cared.

“Careful, Reed.  You might get me thinking you give a rip.”

He had the gall to look wounded.  “Now you’ve gone and hurt my feelings.”

“Just get me out of here,” she said rising and meeting him at the heavy, barred door.

“Working on it,” he said.  “Abbie and Sam are right behind me.  They’ll arrange bail.”

“Bail’s already made.”

Reed looked over his shoulder at the jailer who sauntered slowly toward them with a set of keys.

Crystal backed away from the bars when the barrel-chested and balding deputy slipped the lock and slid open the door with a hollow, heavy clink.  “Someone made my bail?  Who?”

He shrugged.  “You’ll have to ask at processing.  I just do what I’m told.”

“I’ve always had this prison chick fantasy,” Reed said confidentially as Crystal squeezed out of the cell.  “You know – sex starved, man hungry.”

“Stow it.” Crystal marched past him, ignoring his warped sense of humor.  She was tired and terrified and doing her damnedest not to let either show.

“Hey, hey,” Reed said gently and caught her by the arm.  “Looks like someone could use a hug.”

Yeah.  She could use a hug.  She could use a hundred hugs but now was not the time, this was not the place and Reed was not the man she wanted to show the slightest bit of weakness to.  “What I need is fresh air.”

“Sure.  But first, do a guy a favor.  Make my fantasy complete.  Tell me that you and the sister there had a hair pulling, nail scratching cat fight and I’ll die a happy man.”

“Screw you, Reed.”

He dropped a hand on her shoulder.  Squeezed.  “Now you’re talkin’.”

 

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