Dangerous Victor is already released in Australia, and will go live in the US in the next few hours. Exciting times!
I thought you all deserved a sneak peek of Zack and Radha’s story, so I hope you all like them as much as I do!
The office was hushed, eerie after the busy day. Zack hadn’t turned on the overhead lights when night had fallen a few hours before, so the room was lit only by the dim lamp on his desk. Besides Duncan, Zack was the only member of the Soldiering On crew remaining in the office. He liked to have everything neatly finished by the time he went home, ready to start fresh the next day.
One more report to check off his To Do List. He had to write an evaluation of his previous job—one day of bodyguarding duty for a businessman that had flown in for a meeting the day before. Jobs like that were quite common for Soldiering On, the security company he worked for that only employed injured veterans, but they weren’t his favourite. He preferred it when he could use his brain, and his degree in mathematics.
The door to Duncan’s office opened, and Zack looked in the direction of the sound. Duncan was with an unfamiliar woman, the two backlit by the office light behind them. Conscious of the stranger, Zack ducked his head and flipped the hood of his jacket up.
Their footsteps neared his desk, and Zack focused on the pages in front of him. They may as well have been blank.
“This is Zack Walker,” said Duncan’s voice. Zack started at the sound of his name and glanced up. Forgetting, for a moment. “He’ll be working with you as of tomorrow on this project.”
Zack stood, almost held out his right hand, and then remembered just in time. If she found it strange that he offered his left, she didn’t comment. Her hand was soft against his, her skin dark. His gaze travelled up her arm, past a long black plait hanging over one shoulder, and finally landed on a pair of arresting brown eyes, and a mouth with a slight tilt at the corner. A frisson of awareness moved up his arm and spread through his limbs.
It wasn’t her prettiness that struck him the most—though a distant corner of his mind certainly registered it and stirred—but the way she looked him in the eye, unflinching and unaffected by his scars.
“This is Radha Iyer,” Duncan continued, sounding distant to Zack’s distracted ears. She wore a dark suit over a white shirt. Conservative. She’d obviously come straight after work, which would make sense given the late hour.
Duncan cleared his throat.
Zack blinked and came back to himself. He extracted his hand from Radha’s, strangely reluctant. He was glad the room was dark, to hide the heat in his cheeks.
“Hi.” It was all he could trust himself to say.
“Hi,” she replied. Her gaze stayed on him, calm and unwavering.
“Radha’s a lovely name,” Zack said, then winced. The words were both lame and deeply unprofessional.
She smiled, a true smile, not seeming to mind at all. “Thank you. Radha is known as a famous lover in India, where my parents are from.”
The word ‘lover’ falling from her lips was like a kick in the gut for Zack. He swallowed, his tongue thick in his mouth. Had it really been so long since he’d been with a woman that such a simple word could so affect him?
Yes, he reluctantly acknowledged. It had.
Duncan loudly cleared his throat. “Radha works at the Portsboro Grand Hollywood Casino,” Duncan told Zack with a pointed glare. “She’s their General Manager. She has an odd issue with the finances she’d like investigated. I told her you’d start tomorrow.”
Zack raised his brows in surprise at the last minute job. The skin on the right side of his face tightened as he did. “Sure.” He didn’t dare tell Duncan he’d rather stay in the office where only people used to his scars would see him, and do work from afar. Duncan wouldn’t take that well. And, besides, all the interesting jobs were out in the real world.
He knew of the casino—a not-so-grand place over to the east of the city—but he’d never been inside. It shouldn’t be so bad.
“Not just that.” Radha cleared her throat and smiled almost apologetically at her words. “Since the owner of the casino, my boss, doesn’t want these anomalies investigated, I’m technically hiring you as our new Head of Security. It’s why I insisted on a late appointment after work, I couldn’t take the time off or she might get suspicious.” Radha paused. “You can investigate the finances while you’re there, but you’ll have to keep it quiet. Keep your cover, and don’t let Jeri get suspicious.”
Her look was apprehensive, as if she thought he might have a problem with that arrangement.
“Okay,” was all he said. No doubt she and Duncan had discussed this and agreed. It wouldn’t make his job easier or harder—there were pros and cons to both a secret and open investigation—it would just change his strategy.
Besides, it seemed like he’d be working closely beside this woman, and Zack couldn’t complain about that.
“What happened to your last Head of Security?” Zack asked.
She tilted her head. “Hmm?”
“You said I’d be hired as the new Head of Security. What happened to the old one?”
“Oh, that. He hasn’t shown up to work in a week, and we can’t get a hold of him. He’s not answering his door or phone. Jeri told me he was fired, and would be informed if we ever managed to speak to him again.”
Zack’s brows knitted. “Is that normal for him?”
Radha shook her head. “No. He’s very reliable.” She hesitated. “Well, he wasn’t always, but he is now. Jeri thinks he went back to his old ways. I don’t know what to think, but I’m starting to worry.”
Zack glanced at Duncan and knew he was thinking the same thing. Too much of a coincidence to have a missing person and odd happenings with the finances at the same time. No way the two things weren’t related.
Zack shifted his gaze back to Radha. “Well, when I start investigating the finances tomorrow, I’ll also look into his whereabouts. See if we can’t find him.”
Radha’s eyes lit up. “That would be great. I was going to go around to his house tonight one last time before I called the police tomorrow.”
Zack glanced at Duncan again, and their eyes met. A silent communication passed between them.
“I’ll go with you,” Zack said.
“There’s no need, I’m sure—”
“It’s no trouble,” Zack told her firmly. If his suspicions were correct, then he didn’t want her going alone.
She hesitated. Zack kept his face impassive, even as worry gnawed at him. She hadn’t reacted to his face, to the scarring, but perhaps she was just a good actor. Her hesitance told him she was nervous to be alone with him.
He tried to smile, a non-threatening gesture designed to put her at ease. But his smile was uneven now, and it was possible he just made the situation worse.
“Let him go with you,” Duncan said. “We’ll consider it part of your package.”
She nodded determinedly, like she was trying to convince herself. “Sure. I was going to catch the subway, but I’d appreciate the ride.”
Satisfaction settled in him. “Let’s go.”
They said their goodbyes to Duncan as Zack came around the desk and ushered Radha toward the door. As they made their way to the elevator, Zack made sure he presented her with his left side. Though she hadn’t reacted to his scars—a gift from an IED on his last tour—he didn’t think she should see more of them than she had to.
They weren’t pretty.
He wasn’t pretty. At least, not anymore. Once, he’d been decent looking, but the burn scars down his right side put a kibosh to that. They weren’t as bad as some he’d seen, since other than a part of his ear and a patch of his hair, he was intact where someone might see. But it was enough that people regularly flinched away from him when they saw him for the first time.
Zack pondered that fact, trying to ignore the creeping excitement within him. It had been a long time since a pretty girl had looked at him with even a neutral expression. He hadn’t realised how much he’d missed it.
“My car’s this way,” he told her. They jumped in the black Range Rover—a company car, but the one Zack used. Each member of the team had their favourites. Zack shifted uncomfortably as he realised she was now on his right, but again she didn’t seem to notice the scarring on his hand, or what she could see of his face.
“Where are we going?” Zack asked as he started the engine.
She rattled off an address that was about half an hour away, in one of the working class suburbs in the city’s west.
“Thank you for coming with me,” Radha said from the passenger seat as Zack pulled out onto the empty Portsboro street. “You didn’t have to.”
He glanced at her, and then back at the road. “You’re my client now,” Zack said simply.
“Not until tomorrow,” she corrected with a slight tilt of her lips.
Zack shrugged. “Doesn’t make a difference to me when I officially go on the clock.”
Radha was silent for a moment, and he could feel her studying him. He kept still, impassive, letting her look. He expected a question about the scars—everyone asked eventually—but again she surprised him.
“I feel like your workload is increasing. Looking into the company financials, playing Head of Security, and now looking for a missing man.” Her voice was apologetic, but Zack didn’t take his eyes off the road to see her face.
If his suspicions about the Head of Security were correct, he might have to add ‘protection of the client’ to that list of hers.
“I do what needs doing,” was all he said. He sensed her eyes still on him.
They were silent for a moment, but Zack wanted to keep hearing her voice. It was soft and mellifluous, like a summer breeze through the trees.
“So, tell me more about this missing money,” he said. Work. He had to keep it about work. Didn’t matter how pretty this woman was, she was a client, and he had to keep it professional. Paul had gotten away with his emerging romance with Christine purely because she had never officially been on the Soldiering On books. Zack couldn’t risk his job. Duncan and Mandy—co-owners of the Soldiering On security company—were both big on professionalism. They didn’t agree on much, but they agreed on that.
Zack sighed, and vowed to keep his thoughts under control.
“Oh, the money isn’t missing,” she told him.
Zack blinked, bring his thoughts back to the moment. “I thought there were anomalies in the finances?”
She hummed. “There are. But it’s more complicated than someone skimming money.”
Zack glanced at her, at the orange glow from the streetlights bathing her cheeks as she gazed steadily at him, then back to the road. “You better explain.”
“For the last six months, we have more money going out of the casino. But we also have more money coming in. If you look at only our profits, everything is steady, including the amount of customers we have.”
“Huh,” said Zack. That was unusual.
“Yes. So, by the looks of things, our regular customers are regularly spending a few million more per month.”
Curiosity spiked in him. “Except customers don’t do that.”
“And even if customers were spending more, your profits should be higher, based on the house edge and how you make your money.”
He pondered for a moment, thinking through the possibilities. He’d have to rule out the likelihood that it was faulty accounting, broken machines, that kind of thing.
“You know a lot about casinos?” she asked, sounding surprised.
“I know a lot about math,” he corrected her. “When I was in the Marines, I got my degree.”
He saw a quick light of interest—of admiration—in her eyes, before he had to turn back to the road. He ignored the single throb of his heart.
“So you’re perfect for this job,” she said, happily. Of course her reaction had been professional. Zack deflated.
“Yeah.” He swallowed his disappointment. It was a good thing she was interested only in his professional capabilities. It would keep him on track, prevent a pointless crush.
He cleared his throat. “So, you have a higher turnover. Anything else unusual?”
She shook her head. Her plait was coming loose, stray strands escaping from the braid. “Nothing obvious, but numbers have never been my strong suit.”
“And your staff? No one acting differently? No one who happened to arrive at the same moment the odd finances started happening?” He shot her a brief smile, and she returned it. Her dark eyes sparkled with amusement.
“Unfortunately, no,” she said.
“All right, I’ll look into it. What about my other job—Head of Security. What’s involved there? And why don’t you want your boss to know?”
“I’ve brought up my concerns to Jeri a few times over the last few months. She won’t hear them. She thinks it’s a positive thing—and doesn’t want to jinx it by looking into the whys. When I suggested we question it, she…well, let’s just say she got upset with me. I left it alone after that.”
There was something in her voice. Regret, maybe. “It’s her company. Why go behind her back?”
Radha shifted to stare out the windscreen, her expression contemplative.
Her voice, when it came, was quiet. “She’s important to me, and so is the casino.”
That wasn’t the whole story, Zack knew. But he let the subject drop.
They talked a little more about the job and the casino, what it all would entail, standard orientation subjects. It was clear she was good at her job. Every employee, their schedule, even the regular customers. She knew them all.
She directed him down a quiet street. Worn, with peeling paint on the houses and no gardens to speak of, the neighbourhood was sleepy in the late hour. A few of the streetlights were broken, leaving dark patches along the road. Zack parked under one when Radha pointed out their destination. Zack shut off the car, plunging them into further darkness as the headlights shut off. He studied the house. It didn’t look like the kind of place a criminal mastermind would live, but one could never tell.
“What are you thinking?” Radha asked. Her voice was low in the quiet cabin of the car.
Zack shifted his eyes to her and smiled. “Just wondering what kind of man Louis is.”
“He’s a good man,” she said determinedly. “He pulled himself out of a bad situation and made something of himself.”
Zack decided to reserve judgement on that until he’d met the guy. His disappearance at the same time as the casino’s finances went wonky made Zack suspect her trust in Louis was misplaced.
They got out of the car and walked up the concrete driveway. No lights were on in the house. The faded curtains didn’t flicker.
Zack knocked on the door, not expecting an answer.
“Louis?” Radha called through the door. Zack flinched as her voice echoed down the empty street.
It looked like Louis wasn’t home. He was probably on a beach in Mexico by now.
“Keep a lookout, would you?” he said to Radha, digging into his pocket for the small package he’d grabbed from the car.
She shuffled closer, peering over his shoulder at the tools in his hand.
“What are those?” she asked.
“Lock picks,” he told her. He selected two.
She inhaled quickly. “You can’t break in,” she hissed, shocked.
Zack paused and turned to look at her. “Why not?”
“It’s illegal,” she told him, clearly shocked.
“Yes,” Zack countered. “There might be clues inside.”
This brought her up short. “What kind of clues?” Her face was thoughtful now, understanding that Zack had suspicions.
He shrugged, not wanting to speculate just yet. “He’s disappeared at the same time as the finances of your casino went strange. If nothing else, it’s worth looking into.”
Radha stared up at him, her dark eyes inscrutable. Zack swallowed, but held her gaze, waiting for her to make her decision. If she said no, he’d have to come back later without her.
“All right,” she said. “I’ll let you know if I see anyone.” She spun around, edging towards the street to give her a wider view.
Not waiting for her to change her mind, Zack made quick work of the lock on the door. It was old and not secure. Zack hoped the guy was better at security in his day job.
A rush of stale air hit Zack as he swung the door open. The hallway was pitch dark, and glossy catalogues that had been pushed through the mail slot littered the floor.
Zack felt Radha’s presence beside him.
“He hasn’t been home in a while.” Unease coated her voice.
Zack stepped inside, avoiding the crinkling pages of the junk mail as best he could. No sense in leaving evidence of his presence. More pages crackled as Radha followed him in.
“You can wait outside,” he told her, glancing over his shoulder.
She shook her head. “I knew him better than you. Besides, he’s my friend. If he’s skipped town, I want to know about it.”
“Okay,” Zack replied. “Just don’t touch anything.”
He started with the living room, moonlight slanting through the gap in the curtains, illuminating a ten-year-old TV and floral couch that could have belonged to his grandmother. Remnants of a microwavable rice dish sat on the coffee table, gnats hovering over it. Zack covered his nose, filtering out as much of the mouldy aroma as possible.
“Disgusting,” said Radha.
Zack nodded and continued his search. Nothing out of the ordinary; just the standard accoutrements of a middle-aged bachelor.
“Not married?” Zack asked.
“Widower,” Radha told him. That explained the pictures of the attractive fortyish woman in some of the photos, smile bright and dyed red hair gleaming. Louis, who must have been the man in some of the photos, was happy, smiling. All of the photos featured his wife. There were none of children, or Louis alone, or his parents. He’d clearly loved her a lot.
Zack tried not to let it affect him. He was here to do a job, not feel sorry for a man that might have scammed the company he worked for—Zack’s new client—out of millions. But the contrast between the bright, smiling photos, and the sad, lonely life in the rest of the house was stark.
The kitchen yielded nothing other than a few unwashed dishes. They followed the hall toward the back of the house, peering into the bathroom with its tile scheme straight out of the seventies. Again, an air of neglect had settled over the space.
The light from the windows didn’t reach this far down the hall. Zack could just make out a door a few paces away.
A sickly smell reached Zack; at the same time a sense of foreboding settled over him. He hadn’t noticed it at first, presuming it was from the kitchen remains. But this was something else.
He swallowed, trying not to breathe as he made his way towards the room. It had to be the bedroom—the only room yet unexplored.
“Stay here,” he growled to Radha. The rustling behind him stopped.
He tugged the sleeve of his hoodie over his hand as he reached for the knob. Careful not to leave any prints, he opened the door.
The smell assaulted him immediately, making him gag. His eyes watered, and he blinked to clear them.
“What is it?” Radha asked.
He didn’t know how to answer. Louis—at least, he assumed it was Louis—lay on the thin carpet. Dried blood, black in the wan light, pooled beneath him. Flies buzzed and writhed around him. He no longer looked human—a specialist would need to tell them how long he’d been there, but Zack’s best guess was about a week—the length of time he’d been missing.
Louis hadn’t fled to Mexico with the casino’s money. He’d bled to death on his bedroom floor.
The puzzle pieces shifted and rearranged themselves in his mind, becoming more entwined and complex, leaving gaping holes of knowledge.
“What?” Radha’s voice was thinner now, anxiety dripping from the word. She shuffled closer, and Zack wrenched the door shut. He spun, blocking her with his body, forbidding her from entering that room. She didn’t need to see her friend like that.
“I’m sorry, Radha.” He kept his arms out, stretched across the hall in case she tried to dart around him. Instead, she stared up at him as tears pooled in her eyes.
“He’s not…” she couldn’t finish.
“I’m so sorry,” Zack repeated.
The tears slipped from her eyes and slid down her cheeks. She let out a gasping sob, and Zack gathered her into his arms and half-carried her out the front door. He breathed in deep gulps of the fresh night air as he held her close.
She cried quietly against his chest, and all Zack could do is offer murmured words of comfort as he stroked her back. When was the last time he’d comforted a woman? Held her close?
“We need to call the police,” Zack told her softly as her tears subsided.
She nodded, eyes vague. “Yes.”
“They’ll need to ask us some questions,” he warned her.
“Of course.” The nod was slower this time.
“Radha, you’ll have to tell them about the strange finances at the casino.”
At this, her eyes snapped to his. “Why? We can’t tell them.”
“I think it’s best we do,” he coaxed softly.
“But it doesn’t have anything to do with…” Her eyes widened as it dawned on her. He had to say it aloud, anyway.
“He was murdered, Radha. And there’s every chance it was to do with the casino.”