Van stared across the table at his opponent, a line of sweat beaded on his upper lip. It wasn't the first time he'd found himself in this kind of situation since he'd joined the Vegas police force, but it had been a while. This might have been the most skilled opponent he'd ever faced.
The interrogation room was packed; twenty men in uncomfortable institutional chairs crammed into space meant for two or three. Behind the two-way glass, he knew a whole lot more were watching the show.
The man was a petty thief, his take laid out before him on the table, even if he barely glanced at it: two watches, expensive and gold; a wedding ring; and a signed letter from the National Heavyweight Champion himself. And that was just from the last two hours. The guy had been fleecing people for days, ever since getting off the plane from San Francisco.
He was a cocky son of a bitch, that was for sure, but Van had his number.
"You're sure about this, Harris?" Captain Lamonte asked, leaning close enough for Van to smell his sour breath. No one wanted this guy overhearing their strategy session.
"Oh, I'm sure, sir," he said, a slow smile stretching his lips.
Across the table, the older man just chuckled. He'd taken them all by surprise; they wouldn't be making that mistake again, especially not Wilson.
The guy had a silver filling in his left canine that glinted in the harsh light of the buzzing fluorescents. It went well with the silver streaking through his dark hair. He was a dignified man, and it made it so much more unusual that he'd turned to ripping off those poor souls who didn't know any better. Although, unlike some of the men he'd faced across this cold police station table, this guy wasn't a regular.
"Well, sir," Van said, glancing at his watch, "we'd better get this show on the road before the natives get restless. Vegas is a city of instant gratification."
"Of course, of course," he said, with a sidelong smile. "I've got a dinner reservation in an hour, and I'd rather not be late. I'm sure Sgt. Wilson is eager to get home to his lovely wife."
Wilson flushed red, tucked into a corner with his fingers tracing the white line where his wedding ring usually sat. Van could almost smell the shame coming off of him, and he didn't blame him. His wife was a correction's officer, and when she found out that he'd lost his wedding ring... Well, it was good that Homicide was just a few doors down. Come to think of it, shame smelled a lot like high-end scotch.
"Call," the Commissioner said, tapping his cards against the table. He smiled at Van, his silver tooth peeking out.
Van shoved down the glee that rose up his spine, making his hair stand on end. "All in."
The other cops groaned, slumped in their chairs. The intercom flickered to life. "Are you fucking nuts, Harris?" Sgt. Cassidy Miller shouted, loud enough to make the speakers squeal with feedback.
"Poker's a man's game, Miller," Van tossed over his shoulder at his partner, winking at the two-way mirror. "It's a game of wills, a game of wits, a game of..." The mirror shook as she tossed something at it, probably the foam brick that she kept on hand specifically for occasions like this one.
"You talk a big game, Harris," Wilson muttered, leaning away from the mirror a little.
Van shrugged. "She won't kill me over a little teasing," he said, knowing full well that Miller could kick his ass. She knew that he knew it too. Their friendship was undeniably odd, but it worked for them.
"Can we just play the damned cards," Captain Lamonte grumbled. Van ignored him. Lamonte had been the first one eliminated, and the gold watch his wife had gotten him for their anniversary was somewhere on the bottom of the pile.
"You sure you want to go all in, son?" the Commissioner asked, frowning in vaguely paternal disappointment. It made Van's skin crawl. Paternal attitudes gave him the hives, as his papa could attest. Like a shark, the Commissioner had seized upon that weakness early in the game. "Seems to me like that could be a miscalculation on your part."
Van could understand how this man had risen to the top of his organization so quickly. The angle of his eyebrow and the depth of the concerned crease on his forehead was all carefully crafted to hide the predatory glint in his eye. This was a man used to winning.
This was the first year that Vegas had invited the departments from California to take place in their semi-annual Charity Poker tournament, and most of them were regretting it. It probably didn't help that the Commissioner had brought his own liquor and made it freely available to the other teams. Hell, Sacramento had managed to lose two squad cars before they called it quits.
"I'm sure, sir." He crossed his legs nonchalantly.
Vandal Harris took a lot of shit about his family, his unconventional upbringing, and his name, but today it was all going to pay off. Unlike a couple of the guys, he felt no animosity toward his opponent. The last time he'd been so intent on a game of poker, he'd been eight and sitting on Papa's lap while Dad and his little brother, Solomon, frowned across the table. It was a good feeling, thrumming in his bones as he forced his body to stay loose and easy.
Sighing, the Commissioner shook his head. "Your funeral, son," he said, picking up a bag of his previous winnings and setting it down in the middle of the table. "I'll let you off easy. You throw in a meet and greet with that movie star brother of yours, and I'll consider us even."
Wincing inside, Van gestured breezily for someone to hand him a pen. Lion was going to kill him if he lost, but he didn't think he was going to. He was almost certain he'd sorted out the Commissioner's tells. Reasonably certain. There was a good chance that nose rubbing was bluffing, and ear scratching was a good hand. Or was it the other way around?
Scribbling off an IOU, Van tossed it on top of the pile. "Well, sir? Shall we?"
The Commissioner smiled, all broad white teeth with that flash of silver. "I'm sorry, son," he said, his smile widening into a grin as he flipped his cards. "Four aces."
"Son of a bitch," Wilson cursed, and the whole room groaned. Even the table let out a metallic moan as the Commissioner leaned forward to start gathering up the pot.
Van settled back in his chair, adrenaline burning through him like lightning. Now to go for the kill. "That is a very intimidating hand, sir. I am intimidated."
"You win some, you lose some," the Commissioner said cheerfully, sorting through the pile of money and scrap paper.
"I'm very intimidated, sir," Van said, leaning forward to flip his cards with one finger, "but not beaten. Ten high straight flush."
For about ten seconds, the silence was so absolute that Van could hear Miller cursing in German on the other side of the viewing mirror.
"Holy shit." One of the guys from Sacramento let out a whoop and slapped Van on the back hard enough to make his chair screech against the concrete.
The room burst into chaos, too small to contain the childish glee of that many grown men.
Van tipped his chair back on two legs and smiled at the ceiling, propping his feet up on the table and crossing them idly at the ankles. The door to the interrogation room banged open, and more bodies tried to stuff into the already packed space.
Across the table, the Commissioner sat back in his chair, his eyes narrowed. "Well, shit," he said before bursting out laughing.
Van grinned, letting his chair settle back on all fours as someone jostled him from behind. "Good game, sir." He stuck his hand out.
"Great game," the Commissioner said. "And for God's sake, man, call me Edmund. You deal a blow like that to a man's pride, you should be on a first name basis." His handshake was firm, but not hard.
"That was the best damned game I've ever seen," Miller said, the speaker crackling. "Now give me back my damned watch, Harris."
Obediently, Van dug around in the pile on top of the table and pulled out a pair of watches, passing one back to Lamonte. Miller's was broad and heavy, engraved on the back with a loopy embellishment and her wife's name.
"Somebody get this to Miller before her wife finds out I've touched it," he said. Everyone laughed.
"If I was coming after you, Harris, you'd never know." Bethany King, the best forensic tech on the western seaboard, hooked her finger through the band of the watch and smiled. "I did try to warn you, Daddy," she said, waggling her fingers at the Commissioner. "Better luck next year."
"Next year, I'm not playing," Wilson said, fervently, downing another glass of scotch.
"Thank God," Miller said over the speaker.
"Buck up, Wilson." Van grabbed the wedding ring off the top of the pile and pitched it gently at him. "You might live to see tomorrow after all."
Sliding his ring back onto his finger, Wilson kissed the narrow band.
Van shook his head and chuckled, sifting through the money and IOUs for anything else important. "Captain Lewis," he said, holding up the thick cream envelope. It was embossed with the seal of the National Boxing Championships and hand addressed in bold print.
The Sacramento Captain cheerfully elbowed his way through the crowd to Van's side. "Keep it," he said, shaking Van's hand. "You earned it with that game. I never thought I'd live to see the day that old King got taken down. He holds us hostage at every charity event we do."
Van shook his head and pressed the letter into the older man's hands. "I couldn't keep your letter, sir."
"Oh, I'll take back the letter, definitely, but you should keep this." He dug around in the envelope for a moment and fished out a piece of plastic the size of a credit card. "Consider it your Championship belt," he said with a wink, flipping it into Van's hand and walking away.
Almost immediately, someone else came up to congratulate him, reeking of scotch and hanging heavily off his shoulders. Van tucked the little card into his pocket and forgot about it.
"Lion Lee's residence," Mandy's professional voice answered after exactly the third ring.
"Hi, sweetheart. Is my brother home?" Van tossed a donation receipt into the passenger seat. The St James Park After School Program was now several thousand dollars richer thanks to the good members of the Nevada and California Police Officer's Association. Vivienne couldn't even yell at him this time because it wasn't his money.
"Of course, Mr. Harris. One moment." There was a slight click as Mandy operated her little switchboard.
He watched the kids playing basketball on the cracked and crumbling asphalt as he settled into the driver's seat of his oven-hot car. There were improvements needed inside too, but he hoped that they were able to spend some of the money on new courts. From this distance, he couldn't even tell where the three-point line was.
"It'll be just a moment, Mr. Harris." Mandy popped back on the line with a subtle beep. "How's Vegas?" she asked, her voice taking on a teasing lilt. Mandy was a California girl, born and bred, and Lion had a theory that she'd crumble to dust if she was away from the beach for too long.
"Hot. Dry. Full of tourists." He started the car to get some air going. Even at six o’clock in the afternoon, it was over a hundred degrees outside.
"Sounds like business as usual then," she chirped. "Here he is, Mr. Harris. Have a nice day."
"You too, Mandy. Don't let him overwork you."
"I resent that remark," Lion said, his voice dry.
"I resent your lifestyle," Van retorted, hissing as he fumbled with the burning hot seatbelt buckle digging into the small of his back. "Did you know that you had an orgy with six supermodels on some billionaire's yacht yesterday?"
"Did I?" Lion's voice was sharp. "You're not driving, are you?"
"Of course not, but it's hotter than hell out here, and I don't want to cook. I've got the air on." Van held his phone out so that his brother could hear that the engine was off. They all had a thing about phones and driving after the accident that had landed Papa in the hospital for the better part of a year.
More relaxed, Lion huffed. "Did you call just to get me in trouble with my employees, or was there a purpose behind your timely interruption?"
Van glanced at the clock. "Shit, did I interrupt your read-through?"
Lion Lee was the biggest up and coming Hollywood hunk, filming two action movies and a romantic comedy in the next six months. Currently, he was training to play a cop, which tickled Van to no end.
"Not technically. We were still going, but Jackson was half an hour over our scheduled time. You know Mandy wouldn't have put you through if I was really busy. It's what I pay her for, after all." There was a splash and Lion groaned. "Have you finally gotten yourself a hot tub? You really should get a hot tub."
Shaking his head, Van tilted his head back against the supple leather of the seat. Even through his hair, he could feel the heat of it. "You mean the hot tub that you bought, paid for delivery and installation, scheduled for my day off, and didn't tell me about?"
"Was that you? I thought I did that to Solomon."
"Him too." Van shook his head. "Anyway, you should thank me for sparing you from the world's most awkward photo op today." Shifting to get comfortable, Van winced as something stabbed him in the thigh. Fishing around in his pocket, he pulled out the little plastic card that Lewis had given him.
"How did you do this miraculous thing?" Lion asked, his voice only slightly bitter. "Enquiring minds want to know so that I can use the same technique in the future. Seems like half my life is awkward photo ops these days."
"You bring it on yourself, Lion," he said, distracted by reading the tiny print on the face of the card. "What the... Are you kidding me?" Staring at the card in shock, he started to smile.
"Something wrong?" Lion's voice was more alert and Van shook his head, then hurried to explain when he remembered that his brother couldn't see him.
"I won a poker match this afternoon," he started.
"They still let you play in those?"
Van rolled his eyes. "It was for charity. Besides, there were mitigating circumstances. San Francisco was about to walk away with four precincts worth of prizes. You were my all-in bet, by the way."
"I feel like I should be insulted by the implication that I would be okay with being objectified." Lion laughed. "I'm not, but I feel like I should be."
"Brat." Still staring at the card in disbelief, he started to laugh, his cheeks aching. "You'll never believe what I won. This is going to be the best summer of my life."
"Alright, I don't believe you," Lion said. Van could hear the intrigued note in his brother's voice though, and his family was nothing if not nosy.
"I won an all-access pass to the hottest event in Vegas this year," he said, reading it off the card with relish.
"The National Boxing Championships. Twenty-six fights over the next four months, and guess who has a ringside seat." Van tapped the card on his still scorching steering wheel and let the excitement wash over him, the hair on his arms standing on end. "I've got goosebumps, man. This is going to be great."
There was a long silence on the line. "Just one?" Lion whined, and Van could just imagine his full bottom lip, declared swoon-worthy by every teen mag in the country, shoved out in a comical pout.
"Yes, you big baby. Just one."
"That's not fair."
"Rebellion Harris Lee," Van said, stretching the name out the way that Papa did when Lion was in trouble. "You have more than enough money to buy your own ticket if that was what you were inclined to do." He tucked the card carefully away in his wallet, already mentally shuffling his schedule around to fit the five events in.
"But then it wouldn't be yours," Lion said, the whine evaporating. "Your cake tastes better."
Van laughed. "I licked it," he retorted, memories of a hundred holidays and birthday parties playing in his head. "I licked it and spit on it, and I'll pee on it if I have to, but you are not getting this ticket."
"You're so gross, man." Lion was laughing though. "I guess I'll just have to be eternally grateful that you saved me from being photo-oped to death," he added, with a dramatic sigh.
"Yes, yes you will."