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LUCKY STIFF
by Deborah Coonts

Genre: Mystery, Amateur Sleuth, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller

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Something was wrong—something big. And just when things had been going so swimmingly. Flat and lifeless, riding on an undercurrent of anger, the tone in Jimmy G’s voice gave me a really bad feeling. He hadn’t wanted to talk—not over the phone, anyway. I’d agreed to meet him at the Peppermill in thirty minutes. That gave me time to stop by the office as well as work myself into a lather waiting for the proverbial other shoe to fall.

On autopilot, I launched myself across the casino toward the lobby. Only half-aware, I dodged patrons with an ingrained ease as my thoughts tumbled. With a dread I tried to deny, I knew what had made Jimmy’s voice brittle and hard, as if one blow would break it into a thousand daggers. Only one thing got to the old guard like that. Numbers Neidermeyer was no longer merely an interesting study in homicide.

Now it was personal.

I had no idea how or to whom, although I figured I was about to find out. And I so did not want to know. Genetically, I was only fifty-percent old guard, but apparently that was enough to carry the taint—and the burden. One of us hurt, all of us felt the pain—and the responsibility to fix the problem.

Narrowing my eyes, I stopped mid-stride, turned around and surveyed the path I had taken through the casino. Something had hit my muddled brain, bringing me back. What was it? With the practiced eye of experience, I scanned the crowd. Lost in thought, I jumped at the sound of a voice at my elbow.

“Looking for a good time?” The rich timber and subtle Texas drawl of Paxton Dane, our in-house rep from the Gaming Control Board.

Wavy brown hair worn a trifle long, piercing green eyes the color of Brazilian emeralds, a strong jaw, a warm smile, and broad in all the right places, Dane could have moonlighted as a romance novel cover model. For a nanosecond I let my mind wander there, picturing the open, flowing shirt, the tight pants—this was one of the times my whole visual thing was entertaining.

“Private joke?” Stepping in beside me, his eyes briefly met mine. A wry smile lifted the corner of his mouth then he too cast his eyes over the crowd.

“What?” In addition to animal magnetism, was clairvoyance one of his gifts? I certainly hoped not. A flush warmed my cheeks.

“You had this weird grin. Sorta sexy, I might add.” He clasped his hands behind his back, but didn’t look at me.

Adopting a similar stance, I again turned my eyes back to the crowd, but I was having trouble making my mind follow. Not long ago, Dane had made a play for me, and I’d turned him down. We were still trying to find our way back to comfortable, neutral ground.

Teddie had stolen my heart, but I couldn’t deny there was something between Dane and me. Something we’d have to deal with—eventually. I stuffed that thought, and the feelings niggling at the edge of my consciousness, deep down into what I hoped was an inaccessible place. A simple girl, I didn’t need complications.

“What did you ask me?” I said, trying to refocus.

“I believe I asked if you were looking for a good time?” This time he gave me the full power of his megawatt grin as he glanced down at me.

“Is that what passes for a pick-up line in West Texas?” I felt a little off-kilter, I didn’t know exactly why. Of course I had a lot to be hot and bothered about: Teddie in LA, Jimmy G and God knows what…Dane looking at me like that. Why did I seem to have a handle on everything except my libido? Okay, maybe not everything—I was delusional—but even the illusion of control made me feel a bit better.

“I got a smile, didn’t I?” Still Dane didn’t look at me. “If you’re not looking for a good time, what then?”

“Something that’s not right, not normal.”

Dane made a rude sound. “There ain’t much about that crowd a boy from Lubbock would consider ‘normal.’”

One more pass over the crowd and I had it.

“This one’s easy.” I nodded toward the far side of the casino. “When have you ever seen a queue to get into the men’s restroom at a casino?”

A flicker of interest lit his voice. “Can’t say I’ve ever waited in line to take a whizz.”

“My point. Come with me. I may need your help.” I started back across the casino.

“My help?” He was right on my heels. “With what?’

“A coming attraction.”