Eric unclasped his black silk bow tie around his neck as he marched toward the revolving door at the lobby where his town car was waiting with Pam. Although the hotel wasn’t officially open for business yet, a few selected guests were already checked in for the soft opening. The climate-controlled footbridge connecting the North and the Regent was close to finish, while the monorail that traversed the line from the Luxor all the way to the Regent was ready for operation.
Roman stayed a step behind Eric silently. Eric hated that he had to linger a few minutes longer in the suite after Russell stomped out of the room grumbling like a schizo to take Clovache’s call giving him the abridged update regarding her assignment. Clovache, as expected, managed to finish her task without a glitch.
Now for the final act.
Speak of the devil. Eric’s eyes rolled involuntarily as he took a much-needed breath before he pivoted toward the leering nuisance.
“Edgington,” he muttered as the scoundrel approached him. “I thought you already left.”
“I have a few minutes to spare,” Russell uttered with a playful flick of his hand. His stocky bodyguard, Mickey, eyed Roman and the two sentries engaged in a pissing contest of their own.
“I’m sorry but I don’t have the same luxury. Remember? I have… something,” Eric replied pointedly with a condescending half-smile before he spun on his heel and resumed his pace.
“Still?” Russell arched his brow, trying to keep up to him. “I was under the impression you’ve already reached your quota after your ‘little’ tryst with Susannah at the Vista.” His voice had taken that timbre of arrogance when he felt he had the upperhand.
Eric recoiled as if he slammed against a brick wall.
He bit hard as he turned halfway to face Russell, who had his smug grin plastered on.
“Now, now, do you really think I wouldn’t find out?” Russell crooned, cocking his head slightly. “Screwing my granddaughter in my hotel? It’s a bit depraved, don’t you think? Even for you.”
Eric stayed silent as he shook off his moment of vulnerability and compelled his features to project apathy. He had a feeling he had been imprudent earlier. It was a damned shame since he had taken a cerebral approach to every miniscule detail of the operation. He had Clovache sweep the suite they used as hideout for bugs. He even had one of his spies do the same to the Vista ballroom before their post-game rendezvous.
He was first to admit he had committed a cardinal sin: he let his baser instinct get the best of him.
His urgency to meet with her made him complacent. Russell must have sent someone to trail Sookie and Palomino to the ballroom after they left the Arena. Digging his nails into his palm, Eric cursed his recklessness one more time.
However, Russell’s revelation was moot. With everything falling smoothly into place, Russell would no longer be able to pose a threat to Sookie.
Running his fingers through his hair, Eric jutted his lower lip out and expelled air through his nose. “Oh, damn,” Eric muttered dryly, drooping his shoulder in an exaggerated fashion, “what can I say? The allure of the forbidden fruit is too good to pass.”
The corner of Russell’s eyes twitched as his smirk vanished.
Before the horrid mogul could spurt another comeback, Pam burst through the revolving glass doors with an unreadable look on her face. Eric wasn’t fond of that particular look. But from the way Russell’s cheeks lifted and his green eyes lit up, he, apparently, was.
“Evening, Pamela. You’re looking quite flushed,” Russell drawled in a deep baritone making Pam flinch as she dashed to Eric’s side. Pam didn’t offer any pleasantries in return as she merely tipped her head to address the smarmy mogul.
Eric spied Mickey pressing his finger to his ear to activate his Bluetooth. “Mr. Edgington, the car is here,” the sentry whispered to Russell.
Russell flung a split-second glare at Eric before he waltzed to the doors and exited the lobby.
“What is it?” Eric turned to Pam.
“Felipe’s in position but Sookie’s still at the Mandalay. She still needs to fill up Bill’s admission form to the center in Carson.”
“How long will she take?”
Pam glanced at her mobile phone. “Fifteen, twenty?” she mumbled with uncertainty. “You have to go to the MGM. Sheriff Burnham’s in the casino with the Feds. I know Sookie wants to be there for the arrest but if we wait, we might lose Edgington and there won’t be anyone to arrest.”
Eric turned contemplative as he stared at the doors. With a heavy sigh and a curt nod he murmured, “Let’s go.”
Russell smoothed his hair back to his forehead as he raced down the service stairwell to the eighth floor landing. Checking his watch one last time, he shoved emergency doors open with bump of his shoulder. He zeroed in on the first black dome at the ceiling and searched for the distinct wink of a green light. There was none. Perfect. The surveillance was switched off just as he demanded. His pace picked up as he made his way to room 808 his cardkey tucked between his fingers.
He clocked in the shrill tut-tut of the lock before he pushed the heavy door in. The lights turned on automatically as he inserted his card in the slot on the wall beside the doorjamb. He went straight to the king size mattress, placed the black attaché case he brought with him on top of the bedside table and flipped it open. He needed to get his diamonds, some liquid cash, a set of fake documents – passports, driver’s license, Social Security cards -and of course his bankbooks to access his international accounts, the whole nine yards. He had to be prepared with a contingency plan in case of emergency. And by emergency he meant, Northman.
He knew Northman, in all his volatile and infantile nature, would be going after him with guns blazing after tonight.
Flicking the small toggle hidden behind an access box at the side of the nightstand, the ocher cushioned headboard with mahogany frame yawned open and dropped to the mattress, revealing a titanium safe with electronic keypad. His thumb skated over the pad to log the nine-digit code. There was a subdued clatter of metal followed by a ping before the steel door snapped open.
Russell’s eyes rounded as he sucked in a deep breath. He felt his blood shoot up and pool between his ears as he gaped at the empty vault in front of him. A flick of spit left his mouth as he muttered a string of profanities directed at nobody. He would have wailed in fury if it weren’t for the hollow thud of the door snapping in place behind him. Without thinking, he swiveled to the entrance, a snarl at the tip of his tongue.
“Oy! It looks like you’ve been robbed,” an accented voice Russell knew too well drawled in mock concern.
Russell was floored, taking half a step back as he stared at the man in a gray suit and salt-and-pepper hair. “You’re dead,” he breathed.
Felipe leered, rubbing the five o’ clock shadow on his chin. “You, of all people, should know. No one stays dead forever in this town.”
Russell tightened his stare. “No,” he hushed, shaking his head.
A set of heavy footsteps came quick, pounding through the hallway, toward the room. He didn’t have time to react before a tall, blonde man with a damning smirk sauntered through the door.
Eric closed the door behind him, his eyes picking Russell piece by piece.
“What in the hell is all this?! This is private property, Northman. I can sue you both for trespassing!” Russell growled forcing as much venom in his voice. It would have made an impact if he weren’t backing away from them as he made his slow retreat, until the back of his knees hit the frame of the massive bed. As slowly as his trembling hands could allow, he slid his hand inside the pillowcase of one the fluffy white pillows beside him.
Felipe tutted. “Are you looking for this?” he raised the nine millimeter automatic glock that he plucked from his waistband hidden under his jacket. Russell gnashed his teeth in response. “C’mon Russell. Have you forgotten? I was the one who told you that the only way you can sleep safe and sound at night is with a gun under your pillow? That’s why you asked Victor to have me killed in my car instead of in my bed.”
Russell pursed his lips as his gaze flitted back and forth from Felipe to Eric. “Where is it?”
Felipe broke into a grin. “If you don’t mind, we have taken the liberty of relocating the contents of your vault to a safer place.”
Russell forced a shaky laugh. “You are delirious. There’s no way anyone can walk out of here with that much cash and get past my security.”
“Actually, it was your men who hauled your money out of the hotel,” Eric stated matter-of-factly. “Remember all those defective slot machines you asked your staff to dispose? It seems that they weren’t so defective after all.”
Russell’s eyes darted to floor, his Adam’s apple bobbing against his throat. Northman was bluffing, he thought resorting to denial. It wasn’t possible. His surveillance team would have spied anyone trying to get inside this room, much less sneak out over seventeen million dollars through the corridor. No, it was implausible even for Northman.
Eric, as though hearing his internal debate, spoke again. “It wasn’t easy, though. We had trouble thinking of ways to skirt around your cameras, but you took care of that for us. Remember when you asked the control center to blind the eyes on this floor for thirty minutes when you took the Lucky chip after the fight? I seem to recall you only took about fifteen minutes to get the chip before you headed to the Regent. You’d be amazed what an efficient team can accomplish in so little time.”
Russell clenched his fists. The poker game was a ruse. Eric taunted him to bring the Luciano chip and he fell right into the devious bastard’s trap.
A loud rapping at the door jolted him out of his self-loathing stupor. He homed in on the entryway, bracing himself for another shock. He dared not blink as he watched Eric pull the door open to let four uniformed men and a plump, balding man in an ill-fitting tan suit step inside. He recognized the stout figure as the incompetent sheriff of the Las Vegas PD.
“Sheriff! Impeccable timing as always,” Russell exclaimed forcing his voice to sound relieved rather than nervous. “Please, escort these trespassers off my hotel.”
He realized his vault was still wide open for everyone’s viewing pleasure. Maybe, he could still salvage this by holding Felipe de Castro guilty for larceny.
Two large uniformed cops marched toward him with inscrutable faces. He immediately regretted ordering his security detail to stay at the lobby. Mickey, that useless chimp, should have clocked in the entrance of Northman, De Castro and these bozos.
Three men in cheap suits also made their entrance. Feds, Russell thought in revulsion. He could spot a G-Man from miles away.
“Russell Edgington,” Burnham started with a lilt of cockiness in his tone. “I have a warrant for your arrest.”
Russell tuned him out like white noise as the inept officer began enumerating his Miranda rights. He was under arrest for manufacturing and distribution of prohibited substance. Burnham, Russell noted, the pig’s name would fit him perfectly. Yes, he would save the swine for last when he burned his wretched excuse for a police department as soon as he sorted this clusterfuck.
“I am also here to inform you that you are a fugitive from justice in the state of Louisiana for the murder of Earl Stackhouse.”
That got a reaction out of him. He compelled himself to sneer. “This is rich. You think you can pin a forty-year-old cold case on me?” He chuckled bitterly. “Your only evidence is the lack of evidence.”
“Don’t be so sure. Your fingerprint matched the ones lifted from the barrel that killed Earl Stackhouse,” one of the federal agents chimed in. “You might have managed to elude justice for forty years, but today’s forensic science could no longer allow that.”
He was tempted to argue but he knew he would lose. Russell’s eyes were reduced into slits when he felt the cold metal bit his wrists. This was unthinkable. He was Russell fucking Edgington and they dared handcuff him like a boorish felon. He tugged at his cuffs while stabbing Eric with a vicious glare.
Northman’s damnable smirk was salt on the wound. Grinding his back teeth, he paused in front of Eric when the officers shoved him toward the door.
“Need I remind you, Northman. This is a prizefight. You may have won round one, but this is far from over,” Russell grumbled in a hoarse voice. “I have my own Stackhouse trinity under my belt.”
Eric’s despicable leer grew into a condescending grin. “Give it a rest, Edgington. You have nothing. Don’t even try to blackmail Sookie with her father. I already made a call to Macau, Corbett’s under my protection now. Here take this,” he thrust a round metal chip inside Russell’s breast pocket. “Keep it as a souvenir. It’s a fake anyway. If you want to see the authentic Scarface, you can visit it at the Mob Museum. Oh, right, you can’t.”
Eric hovered over him with his towering height. “You may have ruled this town in the past, but I assure you, after I’m done with you the name you hold oh-so dearly will be reduced to a punchline.”
Russell jutted his chin up and kept straight face as he shrugged the officer’s imposing hands on his shoulder. “We’ll see about that.”
Felipe let out an indelicate snort beside Eric. “Russell, Russell,” he tsked as they followed the phalanx of men escorting Russell through the elevator. “Pay no mind to him, Eric. The concept of losing was foreign to him.”
Eric offered no response as they fell into step through the echoing hallway. Taking his phone out of his pocket, he checked for any new message. There were three missed calls from Sam, two from Pam and one, surprisingly so, from Sophie-Anne Leclerq. It was a busy night for everyone and if the Leclerq’s wanted gossip they could watch it on the morning news, just like everyone else.
He dialed Palomino’s number since Sookie wasn’t carrying a cell phone.
“Sorry,” a mechanical female voice rang, “the number you have dialed is out of coverage area. Please try again later.”
He muttered a string of profanities as he dialed another number: Jake Purifoy’s.
“Boss?” Jake picked up before the second ring halted. “I just dropped Jason off to the North.”
“Do you know where Sookie is?”
There was a pause. “Isn’t she with Pally? Do you want me to call them?”
Eric ground his teeth. “No, no,” he sighed. “They’re still probably in the basement. Stay at the North, I’ll go to the Mandalay.” He hung up without waiting for confirmation.
He tried Palomino’s cell one more time and when he couldn’t reach him he dialed John Thompson’s, who was also posted at the Mandalay. It rang four times before it went to voicemail. He took a breath as he picked up speed en route to the line of elevators down the hall.
“Is there a problem?” Felipe asked, giving him a quizzical look.
“I can’t reach her.” That was enough to explain his agitation as Felipe kept mum, practically jogging to keep up with Eric’s pace.
He punched the lift’s down-arrow and stared at the floor indicator to his right. The metal door to his left slid open and a familiar leggy blonde stepped out.
“I was trying to call you!” Pam exclaimed when he brushed past her to board the metal box.
“I’ve been gone ten minutes,” he retorted. Ten fucking minutes and they were already unraveling like cheap wool. “Get in. We’re going to the Mandalay,” he grumbled, jabbing the ground floor button with his thumb.
Pam and Felipe virtually leaped inside the elevator before the doors slid shut.
“Have you talked to Sam?” Pam asked.
Eric, pressing his phone to his ear, shook his head. “Why?” He lowered his phone to press the redial button.
The metal box jarred to a halt when they reached the Ground floor. They stepped out in unison. It was almost two in the morning and there were only a few people meandering on the lobby – some were graveyard employees while most were guests making their way to the casino.
His phone buzzed as an incoming call flashed on the screen. It was coming from the North tower.
“Northman,” he answered quickly. Whatever Sam had to say, he better be quick.
“Boss,” Sam blurted nervously. Bad sign. “You with Sookie?”
He fought the urge to lash out at the nerdy tech whiz. “No. Why?”
“I intercepted a 911 call from the Mandalay. The manager was reporting a breach in the vault. Possible robbery in-progress.”
“Did you check the surveillance?” he asked. He could barely hear his own voice as he stopped dead in his tracks, his heart pounding in his ears.
“That’s the first thing I did,” Sam replied quickly. “But the thing is… only eight people entered the basement since six o’clock tonight. The three night shift guards, two more guards who came in with a nurse and Sookie and Pally. No one else.”
Eric furrowed his brows. Something was rotten alright. “Run the entire tape again starting from this morning.”
“I did that too. We ran the surveillance for the past 48 hours. Same thing. Three guards in, three guards out,” Sam carried on. “I called Pally and JT after the 911 to confirm the call. JT said no alarm was raised, he radioed Pally in the basement and he reported the same thing. If there was a break-in, Pally would know about it.”
Eric could hear Pam and Felipe murmuring in front of him. His two companions were shielding him from guests and staff’s inquisitive eyes. Pam had brought Felipe up to speed while Eric was talking to Sam. “What is it?” Eric asked the duo in a clipped tone.
“I think I know what’s happening here,” Felipe offered, twisting sideway to face him. “Seven years ago, months before your father died, there was a break-in at the MGM. The vault had been cleaned out, but it never made the news because Russell’s PR team put a tight lid on it. The insurance company covered the amount stolen. The thieves weren’t apprehended because there was none. Russell and Victor orchestrated the whole thing. Victor laundered the money from the vault and Russell ordered me to cook the books so he could maximize his claim from the insurance firm. Think about it, Sam said there was no disturbance but a call was made directly by the casino manager. Russell’s desperate enough to stage his own robbery. He got away the first time, what’s stopping him from pulling the same stunt?”
Eric bit his thumb. It made perfect sense. He nudged his head to Felipe. “Call Sandy, ask her about the coverage of the Mandalay vault.” He pressed the phone back to his ear. “Are you still watching the basement?” he asked Sam through the other line.
“Never took my eyes off it, boss.”
“Can you see her?”
A pregnant lull followed. “No, boss. I lost her when she followed Bill at the basement parking lot. They had no surveillance there.”
Of-fucking-course. It was Russell’s torture chamber for his Chariot rides. He’d be a fool to install anything that could be used against him.
“Is there any other entrance except for the main door?”
“There’s only one door from the basement to the hotel for security purposes. There’s no elevator from the parking lot, too. Everyone had to go through the main door – the one Sookie used to come in.”
“And what about the vehicles from the basement?”
“There were four exit ramps but the access ramp of the basement was separated. So far it was quiet, only the ambulance used by the paraplegic center came in.”
Eric stepped out of the shadows of the pillar as he began advancing to the doors of the cavernous lobby with Pam and Felipe right behind him. He didn’t like being blindsided like this. Especially with Sookie at the crosshairs.
“Eric, hold up,” Felipe called out, handing his mobile phone to him.
Eric gave his phone to Pam. “Keep Sam on the line.” He took Felipe’s cell and pressed it to his ear. “Sandy,” was his curt greeting. He had no doubt Sandy would still be awake when he asked Felipe to ring his ex-wife. This was the night they had all been waiting for. Sleep wasn’t on anyone’s agenda until Russell Edgington was safely behind bars.
“Are you certain that Russell’s planning to stage a robbery?” Sandy asked in a hurry. She didn’t seem to actually demand a response as she continued. “That’s preposterous. If he wants to commit insurance fraud, he would have sent someone to break into the MGM vault. Even the insurance company knows the Mandalay vault is like a human appendix, it only stores chips and petty cash for the tables – nothing of great value.”
He felt his palms turn clammy with cold sweat. Something wasn’t right. “What if Russell claims that Sookie has changed the protocol when she signed the new contract?” He was grasping at straws.
“Sookie can’t do that. That’s the reason an actuary was present during the contract signing. The insurance firm has to assess the value of the hotel every time there’s a change of ownership,” Sandy relayed. “And I know for a fact that Russell was bribing the firm’s physician to give him a clean bill of health.”
“Why?” Eric’s hand tightened around the phone. He didn’t like where the conversation was heading.
“Because Russell’s life insurance was pegged to the company.” Sandy paused. Then Eric heard her gasp from the other line. “Oh, no. Not Russell. Not anymore. The firm only covers the life insurance of the CEO.”
His phone made a clanging thud that echoed around the lobby when it slid off his hand and fell on the amber marble floor.
He was suddenly out of breath as a violent spasm of fright consumed him. Russell wasn’t slow playing him during poker because he was sitting on a great hand. He was buying himself time.
Russell wasn’t staging a robbery at the Mandalay to lay claim for the vault. Because the only one that had real value in that basement was Sookie herself. The break-in was only a ploy to get to her. It would look like a robbery gone horribly wrong and she would be a tragic casualty.
It was indeed a prizefight. And in the end Eric was knocked out cold by a sucker punch he didn’t see.