“We’re saved,” Shepley said, walking over to a street vendor selling Red Bull and whatever liquor you could imagine. Shepley ordered two with vodka, and smiled when he took his first sip. “I may never wanna leave.”
I checked the time on my cell phone. “It’s been an hour. Let’s head back.”
“Do you remember where we were? Because I don’t.”
“Yeah. This way.”
We retraced our steps. I was glad when we finally ended up at our hotel, because in truth I wasn’t exactly sure how to get back, either. The Strip wasn’t hard to navigate, but there were a lot of distractions along the way, and Shepley was definitely in vacation mode.
I searched the poker tables for Abby, knowing that’s where she would be. I caught a glimpse of her caramel hair; she sat upright and confident at a table full of old men, and America; the girls were a stark contrast from the rest of those camped out in the poker area.
Shepley waved me over to a blackjack table, and we played a while to pass the time.
Half an hour later, Shepley nudged my arm. Abby was standing, talking to a guy with olive skin and dark hair, in a suit and tie. He had her by the arm, and I immediately stood.
Shepley grabbed my shirt. “Hold up, Travis. He works here. Just give it a minute. You might get us all kicked out if you don’t keep your head.”
I watched them. He was smiling, but Abby was all business. He acknowledged America, then.
“They know him,” I said, trying to read their lips to figure out the distant conversation. The only thing I could make out was have dinner with me from the douche in the suit, and Abby saying I’m here with someone.
Shepley couldn’t hold me back this time, but I stopped a few feet away when I saw the suit kiss Abby’s cheek.
“It was good to see you again. See you tomorrow . . . five o’clock all right? I’m on the floor at eight,” he said.
My stomach sank, and my face felt like it was on fire. America tugged on Abby’s arm, noting my presence.
“Who was that?” I asked.
Abby nodded in the suit’s direction. “That is Jesse Viveros. I’ve known him a long time.”
She glanced back at her empty chair at the poker table. “Travis, I don’t have time for this.”
“I guess he chucked the youth minister idea,” America said, sending a flirtatious grin in Jesse’s direction.
“That’s your ex-boyfriend?” I asked, instantly angry. “I thought you said he was from Kansas?”
Abby shot America an impatient glare, and then took my chin in her hand. “He knows I’m not old enough to be in here, Trav. He gave me until midnight. I will explain everything later, but for now I have to get back to the game, all right?”
My teeth clenched, and I closed my eyes. My girlfriend had just agreed to go out with her ex-boyfriend. Everything inside me wanted to throw a typical Maddox tantrum, but Abby needed me to man up for the moment. Acting against my instincts, I decided to let it go, and leaned down to kiss her. “All right. I’ll see you at midnight. Good luck.”
I turned, pushing my way through the crowd, hearing Abby’s voice surge at least two octaves. “Gentlemen?”
It reminded me of those girls who would talk like children when they tried to get my attention, hoping to come across as innocent.
“I don’t understand why she had to make any deals with that Jesse guy,” I growled.
“So she could stay, I guess?” Shepley asked, staring up at the ceiling again.
“There are other casinos. We can just go to another one.”
“She knows people here, Travis. She probably came here because she knew if she got caught, they wouldn’t rat her out to the cops. She has a fake ID, but I bet it wouldn’t take long for security to recognize her. These casinos pay high dollar for people to point out the hustlers, right?”
“I guess,” I said, frowning.
We met Abby and America at the table, watching as America gathered Abby’s winnings.
Abby looked at her watch. “I need more time.”
“Wanna try the blackjack tables?”
“I can’t lose money, Trav.”
I smiled. “You can’t lose, Pidge.”
America shook her head. “Blackjack’s not her game.”
“I won a little,” I said, digging in my pockets. “I’m up six hundred. You can have it.”
Shepley handed Abby his chips. “I only made three. It’s yours.”
Abby sighed. “Thanks, guys, but I’m still short five grand.” She looked at her watch again and then looked up to see Jesse approaching.
“How did you do?” he asked, smiling.
“I’m five K short, Jess. I need more time.”
“I’ve done all I can, Abby.”
“Thanks for letting me stay.”
Jesse offered an uncomfortable smile. He was obviously just as scared of these people as Abby. “Maybe I can get my dad to talk to Benny for you?”
“It’s Mick’s mess. I’m going to ask him for an extension.”
Jesse shook his head. “You know that’s not going to happen, Cookie, no matter how much you come up with. If it’s less than what he owes, Benny’s going to send someone. You stay as far away from him as you can.”
“I have to try,” Abby said, her voice broken.
Jesse took a step forward, leaning in to keep his voice low. “Get on a plane, Abby. You hear me?”
“I hear you,” she snapped.
Jesse sighed, and his eyes grew heavy with sympathy. He wrapped his arms around Abby and then kissed her hair. “I’m sorry. If my job wasn’t at stake, you know I’d try to figure something out.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, something that only happened when I felt threatened and was about to unleash my full wrath on someone.
Just before I tackled him, Abby pulled away.
“I know,” she said. “You did what you could.”
Jesse lifted her chin with his finger. “I’ll see you tomorrow at five.” He bent down to kiss the corner of her mouth, and then walked away.
It was then that I noticed my body was leaning forward, and Shepley was once again gripping my shirt, his knuckles white.
Abby’s eyes were stuck to the floor.
“What’s at five?” I seethed.
“She agreed to dinner if Jesse would let her stay. She didn’t have a choice, Trav,” America said.
Abby peered up at me with her big, apologetic eyes.
“You had a choice,” I said.
“Have you ever dealt with the Mob, Travis? I’m sorry if your feelings are hurt, but a free meal with an old friend isn’t a high price to pay to keep Mick alive.”
I clamped my jaw closed, refusing to let it open for words to spill out that I would regret later.
“C’mon, you guys, we have to find Benny,” America said, pulling Abby by the arm.
Shepley walked beside me as we followed the girls down the Strip to Benny’s building. It was one block away from the bright lights, but it was somewhere the gold had never touched—and wasn’t meant to. Abby paused, and then walked up a few steps to a large, green door. She knocked, and I held her other hand to keep it from trembling.
The doorman appeared in the open doorway. He was enormous—black, intimidating, and as wide as he was tall—with the stereotypical Vegas sleazeball standing next to him. Gold chains, suspicious eyes, and a gut from eating too much of his mother’s cooking.
“Benny,” Abby breathed.
“My, my . . . you’re not Lucky Thirteen anymore, now, are ya? Mick didn’t tell me what a looker you’ve grown into. I’ve been waiting for you, Cookie. I hear you have a payment for me.”
Abby nodded, and Benny gestured to the rest of us. “They’re with me,” she said, her voice surprisingly strong.
“I’m afraid your companions will have to wait outside,” the doorman said in an abnormally deep bass tone.
I took Abby by the arm, turning my shoulder in a protective stance. “She’s not going in there alone. I’m coming with her.”
Benny eyed me for a moment, and then smiled to his doorman. “Fair enough. Mick will be glad to know you have such a good friend with you.”
We followed him inside. I kept a firm grip on Abby’s arm, making sure to stand between her and the biggest threat—the doorman. We walked behind Benny, followed him into an elevator, and then traveled up four floors.
When the doors opened, a large mahogany desk came into view. Benny hobbled to his plush chair and sat down, gesturing for us to take the two empty seats facing his desk. I sat, but adrenaline was streaming through my veins, making me twitch and fidget. I could hear and see everything in the room, including the two thugs standing in the shadows behind Benny’s desk.
Abby reached over to grab my hand, and I gave her a reassuring squeeze.
“Mick owes me twenty-five thousand. I trust you have the full amount,” Benny said, scribbling something on a notepad.
“Actually,” Abby paused, clearing her throat, “I’m five K short, Benny. But I have all day tomorrow to get that. And five thousand is no problem, right? You know I’m good for it.”
“Abigail,” Benny said, frowning, “You disappoint me. You know my rules better than that.”
“P-please, Benny. I’m asking you to take the nineteen-nine, and I’ll have the rest for you tomorrow.”
Benny’s beady eyes darted from Abby to me, and then back again. The thugs stepped out of their dark corners, and the hairs on the back of my neck were standing on end again.
“You know I don’t take anything but the full amount. The fact that you’re trying to hand me less tells me something. You know what it tells me? That you’re not sure if you can get the full amount.”
The thugs took another step forward. I took stock of their pockets and any shape under their clothing that screamed weapon. They both had some sort of knife, but I didn’t see any guns. That didn’t mean they didn’t have one stuffed in a boot, but I doubted either one was as fast as me. If I needed to, I could get it away from them and get us the hell out of there.
“I can get your money, Benny,” Abby giggled nervously. “I won eighty-nine hundred in six hours.”
“So are you saying you’ll bring me eighty-nine hundred in six more hours?” Benny smiled his devilish grin.
“The deadline isn’t until midnight tomorrow,” I said, glancing behind us and watching the approaching shadow men.
“W-what are you doing, Benny?” Abby asked, her posture rigid.
“Mick called me tonight. He said you’re taking care of his debt.”
“I’m doing him a favor. I don’t owe you any money,” she said sternly.
Benny leaned both of his fat, stubby elbows onto his desk. “I’m considering teaching Mick a lesson, and I’m curious just how lucky you are, kiddo.”
Instinctively, I shot out of my chair, pulling Abby with me. I jerked her behind me, backing up toward the door.
“Josiah is outside the door, young man. Where exactly do you think you’re going to escape to?”
“Travis,” Abby warned.
There would be no more talking. If I let either of these goons past me, they would hurt Abby. I moved her behind me.
“I hope you know, Benny, that when I take out your men, I mean no disrespect. But I’m in love with this girl, and I can’t let you hurt her.”
Benny burst into a loud cackle. “I gotta hand it to you, son. You’ve got the biggest balls of anyone that’s come through those doors. I’ll prepare you for what you’re about to get. The rather large fella to your right is David, and if he can’t take you out with his fists, he’s going to use that knife in his holster. The man to your left is Dane, and he’s my best fighter. He’s got a fight tomorrow, as a matter of fact, and he’s never lost. Mind you don’t hurt your hands, Dane. I’ve got a lot of money riding on you.”
Dane smiled at me with wild, amused eyes. “Yes, sir.”
“Benny, stop! I can get you the money!” Abby cried.
“Oh no . . . this is going to get interesting very fast.” Benny chuckled, settling back into his seat.
David rushed me. He was clumsy and slow, and before he even had a chance to reach for his knife, I incapacitated him, shoving his nose straight down into my knee. I then threw two punches into his rat face. Knowing this wasn’t a basement fight, and that I was fighting to get me and Abby out alive, I put everything I had into each swing. It felt good, as if every bit of pent-up rage inside me was finally allowed an outlet. Two more punches and an elbow later, David was lying on the floor in a bloody heap.
Benny’s head fell back, laughing hysterically and pounding his desk with the delight of a child watching Saturday morning cartoons. “Well, go on, Dane. He didn’t scare you, did he?”
Dane approached me more carefully, with the focus and precision of a professional fighter. His fist flew at my face, but I stepped to the side, ramming my shoulder into him at full force. We stumbled back together, and fell onto Benny’s desk.
Dane grabbed me with both arms, hurling me to the ground. He was faster than I had anticipated, but not fast enough. We scuffled on the floor for a moment while I bought time to get a good grip, but then Dane gained ground, positioning himself to get in a few punches on me while I was trapped beneath him on the floor.
I grabbed Dane’s nuts and twisted. It shocked him and he cried out, pausing just long enough for me to get the upper hand. I kneeled over him, holding him by his long hair, loading punch after punch into the side of his head. Dane’s face rammed into the front of Benny’s desk with each blow, and then he scrambled to his feet, disoriented and bleeding.
I watched him for a moment, and then attacked again, letting my rage flow through me with every strike. Dane dodged once and landed his knuckles to my jaw.