The Solitaire Series: The Eight of Clubs

The Solitaire Series: The Eight of Clubs

The Solitaire Series Reminder: Each week, a story will appear on my blog, and be free to read for one week only. The next story will take its place, and the first story will be available on Amazon and other e-retailers. But if you follow this blog, you can read the stories for free every single week! Read more about the Short Story Deal here.

Throughout the series, there will be collections of stories, and we will even be producing some really cool swag along the way. Watch for contests, prizes, and even some fun “in-person” events!

Janice glared at the black man in the red suit with the big top hat-wearing the wine-colored scarf. She slipped the hundred he tossed her way into her pocket anyway. Perks of the job. Free drinks from assholes who hit on her because she was pretty, and an occasional hundred or more from some gambler who was doing well, even if she had asked him for help.

That had been a pretense of course. She wanted information from him, and he seemed to be an easier target than the scarred man who’d left the club with him. Jack, he’d called him? Sounded right.

And normally a man like Red Hat would stop for her when she asked them for help. But she’d seen him come out of the club once, and then be escorted back inside. Janice wondered what that was about.

She knew his place had a game going on. The jerk who just threw money at her and his scarred friend from earlier certainly hadn’t been inside for the music, and she hadn’t seen them bellied up to the bar or sitting in the couches where the old dudes usually watched the young chicks like her dance. Lord knew what they did with themselves, but she’d rather be spared that knowledge.

No, there was a backroom filled with high stakes gamblers. She wanted in, not because she was a gambler herself, but because it was her job.

The bouncers had kicked her out because maybe she’d been a bit too flirtatious, and certainly flipping off the one-way mirror at the top of the stairs hadn’t been a brilliant move, except if your intent was to see what kind of attention that got you. Her plan had worked. There was someone up there.

Someone important.

Her success meant getting back inside, which should be pretty easy.

First, she slipped her phone from her pocket and dialed a number.

“Come get me,” was all she said.

A mere thirty seconds later, a sedan with a Lyft light pulled up to the curb, and she slid into the back seat.

“What happened?” the driver barely glanced at her in the mirror.

“I got kicked out, so I need to change. Drive around the block.” The car moved away from the curb and out of the parking lot.

At her feet was a black duffel bag, and she pulled it on to the seat and unzipped it. Removing the red wig she had on, she ran her hand over her own dark hair, shaved close to her skull. Not too sweaty, and the tape was still in place. She tossed the wig aside and selected a blond one instead, one with longer hair. She set it in place on her head, securing it.

Janice pulled the black dress over her head and tossed it aside, too. The car swerved as it switched lanes quickly and then came to a sudden stop.

“Sorry,” the driver said over his shoulder. Her eyes met his in the rearview.

“Eyes on the road,” she told him. “There’s nothing for you to see back here.”

He snorted laughter, but his eyes moved back to the front and he returned his focus to driving.

She selected a blue number, low cut, one that would be short on her, and pulled it on. She selected some platform heels, what her boss called her stripper shoes, but their real purpose was to add a few inches to her height. She set them on the seat.

Then she took out a mirror, wiped off the makeup she’d been wearing, applied some moisturizer, and went for a new look.

This time she applied more blush, highlighting her cheekbones and adding more eyeshadow, making her look older and more mature than she was. When that was done, she straightened the wig one last time.

Her target would be different this time, not the young boys in the club, but the men passing through to the back room.

And she’d be looking to avoid the attention of management and security now that she knew someone big was watching.

“Get me back in there,” she told the driver.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. A few moments later they drove back into the parking lot, pulled into the circle drive, and the valet who had looked down on her when she got kicked out of the club opened her door for her. She swung her feet out, slipped on the heels, and stood.

“Ma’am?” the driver said.

She turned her head to look at him. He pointed at her rear.

She felt back there, realizing her dress was partially tucked into her underwear, and she pulled it out, smoothing it over her ass and the back of her legs. Damn bullshit, getting dressed in the back seat.

She heard laughter from the direction of the driver but slammed the door, turned, and walked inside, carrying a tiny black purse that contained everything she needed.

She found it funny that the same security guard who had escorted her out less than an hour before stood aside as she came in, and then checked her out as she went by. Asshole.

But she smiled anyway and headed for the bar. This seemed to be the place where men headed to the back room and the games there passed by, and she bet she could make one of them stop either on the way in, or if he won big, on the way out.

This was Vegas. There was nothing illegal about gambling, so there was no reason to hide it unless you were an organization with predatory practices. Even though the odds favored the house, the games had to be fair.

Also, lending money at exorbitant rates and collecting payments with violent tactics when gamblers didn’t pay was illegal.

Organizations ran the gambit, from high stakes poker and blackjack tables to sports betting. And gambling law is no simple thing to understand. Illegal gambling as a business is Federally forbidden, but states and their gaming commissions actually determine what is allowable in their states and what isn’t. When it comes to the legal arenas like financing and fair play, there are several jurisdictions that come into play, including criminal and constitutional law, and sometimes even competition law. In cases like this one, in Vegas, task forces were usually organized by both the Nevada Gaming Commission and the FBI in cooperation.

That made Janice’s job a hard one. She went undercover, gathered evidence, always aware it was very possible that not a shred of it would be relevant, and she’d have to gather more, different evidence, or in some cases start her investigation all over again.

This was her third year operating in Vegas, about two years longer than the average agent lasted in her position, but she had several things going for her. Her military training meant she was in great shape and able to handle herself without backup in most situations. She was also a master of disguise, had no family to speak of, so nothing really going on at home. She didn’t even have a cat or a goldfish.

Her boss described her as the perfect agent. She described herself as a cold-blooded bitch out for justice.

I hope you are enjoying reading this series as much as I am. This story and the rest of the series is available on Amazon now. You can read the other stories in this series on Amazon here! Stay tuned for another FREE story right here next week. I hope to see you then!

The Solitaire Series: The Eight of Clubs

The Solitaire Series: The Four of Hearts

The Solitaire Series Reminder: Each week, a story will appear on my blog, and be free to read for one week only. The next story will take its place, and the first story will be available on Amazon and other e-retailers. But if you follow this blog, you can read the stories for free every single week! Read more about the Short Story Deal here.

Throughout the series, there will be collections of stories, and we will even be producing some really cool swag along the way. Watch for contests, prizes, and even some fun “in-person” events!

Stephan opened the driver’s door of his car and stood.

He stretched for the sky first, brought his arms down to his side in a huge arc, and then reached down to touch his toes.

Once he’d done that, he straightened. The drive from Vegas to Phoenix wasn’t horrible, but then again it wasn’t his favorite either. It took a little over four and a half hours if he obeyed speed limits. Stephan never did, not since he replaced his old beater with this new ride. It was a Lexus, so an upscale Toyota, but still much better than what he’d had before.

He looked at the home, located off a street called Indian School and near 59th Avenue. In his mind, he wondered that the name of that street had not been changed yet in these politically sensitive times.

Gravel replaced grass in the front yard, and tall cactus substituted for trees. Some of them must be quite old, and that made sense. He’d bet this neighborhood had been started in the 1970s and a lot of the homes, while repainted, retained that style.

This one was constructed of pretty standard stucco, tan in color, and the only thing that set it apart from the others in the neighborhood was the front gate—painted a bright red with a giant brass knocker in the shape of a heart on the outside.

Well, that was the only thing at first glance. At a second, more attentive glance, the cameras became visible. There were no less than two covering the front gate, and Stephan counted at least six on the property, high resolution, wide-angle at a guess. Those were just visible above the fence surrounding the back yard, but at a little under six feet tall, he didn’t have the view a taller person might.

It didn’t matter. They always knew he was coming.

The bruises from his last encounter had healed nicely. The money he’d earned went to the new ride sitting by the curb now, one that seemed oddly out of place in this neighborhood. He walked to the gate, and tried the handle, finding it unlocked.

Stephan drew a pistol from a holster in the small of his back. He had a fake U.S. Marshal’s badge that, while it would not pass deep scrutiny, usually put off anyone curious enough to ask for it. Arizona was an open carry state anyway, and he had a permit to carry concealed in all but a few states ever since he’d taken the Utah course.

That was something he’d done on his own, even before he took this job, and it certainly came in handy now.

He toed the gate open and stepped inside. The door knocker clicked lightly as it swung. A screen door protected the regular door behind it, and everything looked ordinary at first glance.

All of the shades were drawn, some windows covered in blinds, the others covered by curtains. From what he knew of his target, this was also to be expected.

He’d been described as a night owl, a redundant term Stephan hated. Owls were already nocturnal. Day owls were nearly non-existent, as far as he knew.

He moved forward and studied the screen door. There was an alarm strip on the top, one easy enough to disable, but if that was the obvious one, there was probably another hidden one.

“You might as well come in,” a deep voice said, startling him.

This story is now available on Amazon! I hope you are enjoying reading this series as much as I am. You can the rest of this series on Amazon here! Stay tuned for another FREE story right here next week. I hope to see you then!

The Solitaire Series: The Eight of Clubs

The Solitaire Series: The Five of Clubs

The Solitaire Series Reminder: Each week, a story will appear on my blog, and be free to read for one week only. The next story will take its place, and the first story will be available on Amazon and other e-retailers. But if you follow this blog, you can read the stories for free every single week! Read more about the Short Story Deal here.

Throughout the series, there will be collections of stories, and we will even be producing some really cool swag along the way. Watch for contests, prizes, and even some fun “in-person” events!

Fredrick leaned against the wall outside and took a deep drag on his cigarette. He couldn’t smoke in the club. Those days were long gone.

Two men had come in the club last night. One guy Ace called Jack was all scarred up on his right side. The other he learned later was named Burt, big black dude, red top hat, red suit, and sporting a gorgeous pair of Oxfords. He’d met them at what started out as his side gig, then became his primary one. Well, sort of.

Fredrick didn’t like his job. That was in part because it was actually two jobs, and the challenge of balancing the needs of each weighed on him.

Coming out of high school, he’d found himself one of the most desired linemen in the NFL draft, got picked by the Rams in the tenth round, signed a fat contract, and was on the way to living his dream.

The pressure was immense. Almost every NFL player had some kind of vice, one that enabled them to let off steam, fight boredom in the offseason, and motivate them to more frequent and harder workouts.

Some guys got more tattoos, some drank, and others turned to drugs. For some, fast cars and women were enough. For Fredrick, gambling kept him going.

His game of choice was blackjack, and it took him a little too long to figure out that the big winners were pros. Most of them counted cards and actually gambled for a living, riding a rollercoaster of big losses and big gains, but always increasing their stake.

Still, he always believed the next hand would make him the big winner, and before long he found himself addicted and surprisingly to some, in debt.

At first, he managed his vice well, and it didn’t affect his play. Gradually, he couldn’t do it anymore.

His coaches and teammates tried to help, but he blew them off. He borrowed money, sold things he should’ve kept, and all the while his debt grew. Occasionally, he would manage to pay it off, but then his losses would feed it like a junkie on Friday night. He started missing workouts and then practices.

Before he knew it, his coaches decided that he would be “injured” in a game and released. They even picked the goddam play.

Turned out, he was a good actor, and left the game with no disgrace to himself and more importantly to his coaches, no disgrace to the team, or the league.

He took a gig as a bouncer working for Ace at this club. Pretty soon, he learned about the back-room games where the real money was made, and his size, cunning, and his innate ability to talk drunks into leaving peaceably earned him rapid promotions until he was Ace’s right-hand man.

He never gambled here. “You don’t shit where you eat,” his grandfather, one generation removed from the slavery of a South Carolina cotton plantation, told him. Fredrick’s father was half-white, the result of his grandfather’s affair with a white woman from West Virginia far enough from where he ate, so to speak.

The tryst had turned into a marriage, one that lasted nearly sixty years until the cancer came for his grandmother and took her away over the course of a six-month battle as fierce as she was. In the end, she lost.

No, when Fredrick did gamble, which he often did, he avoided the casinos and games run by Blackjack, his employer’s less than legitimate company.

Instead, he tried to find places that were neutral, and tried to keep his debts to a minimum.

But it was hard to know who owned what location and who was running what game.

Inevitably, he found himself in debt again, this time to a group known as Solitaire, Ace’s main competitor. And as gamblers are often wont to do, he made a deal for himself. The first few months of his double-job, he paid off his debt using information. After that, his industrial spying, for that’s what it was if he was honest with himself, earned him a certain amount of credit with Solitaire, all based on how good the information he passed along was.

So, he looked for valuable information whenever possible even though he lost most of what he earned, at least, at first.

Lately, things had started to turn around for him. After years of play, he started to understand the game better, and pay more attention to detail. He learned a fairly easy system of counting cards, one that improved his odds significantly.

His job had also helped him gain some self-discipline. Instead of gambling all of his winnings away, he started to save them, hoping one day he could get out of Vegas, head someplace more pleasant to live, and where he wasn’t beholden to anyone.

The more valuable information he gave up, the larger his stake became, and that increased the odds his dream would become a reality.

Of course, he had to be careful about winning too much. Nothing was more suspicious than someone unlucky who had a sudden turnaround in luck.

While the two men talked to Ace, Fredrick listened. When they left, he made a phone call that resulted in a request for his presence. When his shift was over, he left the club and headed downtown in his aging Kia, bypassing the valet service and parking in the lot outside the casino on his own.

He entered through a door marked “Employees Only” using a magnetic card to unlock it. It looked like a standard playing card, the five of clubs, and had been issued to him before the first time he’d been invited here.

He turned left, walked down a long white hallway lit by bare fluorescents hanging in eight-foot strips from a high ceiling. At the end of the hall, he took a right and then pushed the button on an elevator set into the wall on the right.

When it arrived, another swipe of the card was necessary to open the door.

Fredrick stepped inside and pressed the button for the sixth floor. A short ride and walk down a carpeted hallway this time, odd-numbered doors on the right, evens on the left, he came to room 636.

Using the card again, he opened that door, too.

A man he knew as Nakamura looked up from a short, tan couch. It sat in front of a glass coffee table and faced a medium-sized television mounted to the wall. A quick glance around the room told him no one else was here. The shades were drawn over the one large window, and cheap art hung from the walls. The wet bar stood slightly open, small bottles visible through the gap.

“What’s going on?” he asked, looking closer. His friend, who was originally from Japan, had a bandage around one knee, holding a bag of ice. His arm was in a sling but looked like it should be in a cast.

“I could ask you the same,” Nakamura said. “I heard you’ve seen Jack and his friend.”

I hope you are enjoying reading this series as much as I am. This story is now available on Amazon. You can the rest of this series on Amazon here! Stay tuned for another FREE story right here next week. I hope to see you then!

The Solitaire Series: The Eight of Clubs

The Solitaire Series: The Ace of Clubs

The Solitaire Series Reminder: Each week, a story will appear here, and be free to read for one week only. The next story will take its place, and the first story will be available on Amazon and other e-retailers. But if you follow this blog, you can read the stories for free every single week! Read more about the Short Story Deal here.

Throughout the series, there will be collections of stories, and we will even be producing some really cool swag along the way. Watch for contests, prizes, and even some fun “in-person” events.

“Jack, that’s the dude with the messed-up face from what Solitaire tried to do to him, right?” his real name was Cliff, but he insisted that everyone call him Ace. He stood with his back to a huge bank of monitors flanking a large walnut desk, hands clasped behind his back, and stared through a one-way mirror at the bodies writhing, moving apart and together under the laser lights and flashing globes in the club below. A redhead wearing a typical little black dress turned and looked up at the mirror for just a second, hair flipping around her freckled face, and flipped him the bird.

“That’s him, Ace.”

“Who’s the red hat, scarf-wearing asshole? And who let their security man in here?”

“Manny did, as far as I can tell.” Fredrick, his head of security stood much taller than Ace. A former NFL linebacker, he was much wider in the shoulders as well. Still, he seemed cowed as he made his report, and Ace liked that. He thrived on it.

The redhead continued to gyrate, rubbing up against a skinny white dude wearing a Neck Deep t-shirt under his pimpled face and sporting dark, bowl cut hair. For no reason, he suddenly hated her. Not her specifically, but what she represented.

Flipping off a mirror not knowing what lay behind it, dancing with guys she’d never give a chance in order to get free drinks and flaunting her flaming beauty to get whatever she wanted? She represented so many things he despised.

“Hang on a sec,” he said, picking up a radio. “Sal, the gal in the black dress?” he said.

Below he saw one of the large bouncers raise his hand to his ear. “Yeah, boss?”

“Kick her out.”

“Are you sure, Ace? She’s the daughter—”

“I don’t give a fuck whose daughter she is. Get her out of here, at least for tonight.”

“Yes, sir.” He saw the bouncer moving towards the girl and turned back to Fredrick.

“Back to the matter at hand. So Manny let a Solitaire man into my club why?”

“Red Hat is a counter, the same as Jack. He thought we might have mutual interest in removing him.”

“You know I like the counters sometimes, right? Everyone loves to follow a winner.”

“Yes, but—”

“Yes, what?”

“Yes, Ace. He seems like a pro, though.”

“Does he belong to someone or is he a freelancer?”

“Freelance, as far as we can tell.”

Ace studied the monitor that showed him a view of the front door. He saw Jack and Red Hat exchange a few words, the man in the hat handed Jack a card, and then Jack left.

“Huh,” he said, still watching. Behind him, Fredrick stayed silent.

Ace watched as Jack drove away. Red Hat turned to leave himself.

“Stop him and bring him up here,” Ace said. “I want to talk to him.”

“Yes, Ace,” Fredrick said, and fled the room while talking rapidly into his radio.

Ace smiled, and waited, watching events unfold in black and white on the tiny monitor in front of him.

Read the rest of this story on Amazon here!

I hope you are enjoying reading this series as much as I am. You can the rest of this series on Amazon here! Stay tuned for another FREE story right here next week. I hope to see you then!

The Solitaire Series: The Three of Clubs

The Solitaire Series: The Three of Clubs

The Solitaire Series Reminder: Each week, a story will appear on my blog, and be free to read for one week only. The next story will take its place, and the first story will be available on Amazon and other e-retailers. But if you follow this blog, you can read the stories for free every single week! Read more about the Short Story Deal here.

Throughout the series, there will be collections of stories, and we will even be producing some really cool swag along the way. Watch for contests, prizes, and even some fun “in-person” events!

Electronic dance music thumped from the speakers throughout the club. To Jack, it was nearly deafening, rendering his one good ear nearly useless. But there was a game in the back, one he was interested in. The stakes were high, and, well, until he could get some money built up again, he really didn’t want to head back to L.A.

He was being followed. There were two distinct tails, one a real pro, probably from Solitaire but with no orders yet regarding what to do about him. He hadn’t come into the club, which meant either this was not a Solitaire property and probably that operatives from the organization were not welcome here.

The walk to the back room seemed to take a really long time. Leaning heavily on his cane, Jack simply tried not to get knocked over. His unstable leg and ruined right arm made that difficult, not to mention the fact that his missing eye made it impossible for him to see anything on that side of him without turning his head. Add that to his complete lack of depth perception combined with the dark room and the fact that he’d left Boris in his hotel room, basically he was screwed.

Laser lights flashed in time with the music. A long bar lined one side of the room, every spot along it occupied by a writhing body, most of them scantily clad. He staggered along beside them, the clearest place on the club floor, but was still often jostled from time to time.

The second tail had followed him in the club, and that man was not far behind him. It was okay. Jack doubted he knew the password to get into the back room, and if he did, that would be fine. He could get a better look at him.

This man was an amateur. He was dressed in loud clothing that drew attention: a red top hat and coat, a wine-colored scarf, and some classy black and white Oxford’s Jack had spotted when he first noticed the man following him.

The man often got too close and other times Jack lost sight of him completely. He would have intentionally lost him, but he kind of wanted to let him get close so he could determine who he was. Solitaire on him was enough, so he didn’t need any additional surprises.

Truth be told, Jack found the whole thing really annoying. Clearly, he couldn’t hide, not with his mangled appearance, something that was also Solitaire’s fault. He should technically be free, but someone wasn’t playing by the rules. At some point, they would either kill him or want to negotiate some kind of peace.

Whoever the second tail was, clearly he had fuck-all to do with either of those outcomes. By the time he reached the door to the back room, the hat he’d pulled low over his face had nearly been knocked off, his tinted glasses, ones he often wore indoors, sat askew on his half-devastated nose.

He made an effort to straighten both, at the same time shooting a glance backward into the club. His tail wasn’t far behind, easily visible due to the ridiculous hat he wore. He seemed to be having fun, moving with the crowd. The act didn’t hide his intention though.

Jack had seen him at his hotel, rushing out to get in his own car as Jack pulled away.

Well, he’d have a few hours to himself when Red Hat wasn’t able to follow him. Jack was here to play.

He turned to the guard. “Password,” the man said simply, not even blinking at Jack’s looks.

“Three of clubs.”

“Enjoy your evening, sir.” The man waved a badge over a sensor, a click sounded, and the door opened.

Made of thick steel, obviously a security tactic, the back of the door was also covered with a thick layer of cushioned cloth, as were the walls of the entire room. As the door swung shut, the sounds of the club faded.

Jack stopped, and reached inside this jacket pocket, a conservative gray that did nothing to draw attention to him, and removed the lightly tinted lenses he’d been wearing, replacing them with dark sunglasses.

I hope you are enjoying reading this series as much as I am. You can the rest of this story on Amazon here! Stay tuned for another FREE story right here next week. I hope to see you then!

The Solitaire Series: The Three of Clubs

The Solitaire Series: The Two of Spades

The Solitaire Series Reminder: Each week, a story will appear here, and be free to read for one week only. The next story will take its place, and the first story will be available on Amazon and other e-retailers. But if you follow this blog, you can read the stories for free every single week! Read more about the Short Story Deal here.

Throughout the series, there will be collections of stories, and we will even be producing some really cool swag along the way. Watch for contests, prizes, and even some fun “in-person” events!

Two dogs raced around inside a chain-link fence in the back yard, barking furiously. One looked as if he’d nearly escaped the enclosure.

“I call them Doug and Barry,” a woman’s voice said from behind him, and Alec jumped.

“Clever,” he said. “And Jesus, you’re quiet.”

“He’s the gardener.”

“Who?”

“Jesus,” she said. Alec glanced at her. Brunette, tall for a woman but still nearly a foot shorter than he was, she was almost what many men would call Amazonian. Her shoulders were square and broad, her waist thin, her forearms visible out the end of her sleeves firm and muscled. Her large right hand clutched a tablet, and in her left she held a stylus that appeared tiny between her thick fingers. A single wireless earbud dangled from her left ear.

Alec couldn’t hear anything through the thick glass, but he could see a squat, round man in some kind of khaki uniform shouting and waving at the dogs as he filled in the holes around the fence with gravel.

“Why do they want to get out so badly?” he asked.

“The dogs? I don’t think they want to. I think they just like to see him shout.”

It did look that way, as the dogs ran up and down the fence line barking and wagging their tails as the gardener chastised at them and shoveled.

“He tries to put some chemical around the perimeter that keeps them from digging. It lasts about five days, and he comes once a week. So it’s just long enough between applications that they can start digging again.”

“Why don’t you have him come more often?”

“Are you kidding me? For what he charges? No way.”

“Clearly, you can afford it.” Alec gestured around at the room. Besides the elegant glass windows looking out on the yard and the gleefully digging dogs, there was a fireplace against one wall, rarely used. In front of it was a bearskin rug, polar bear as far as he could tell, and likely real. Surrounding that was a matching couch and loveseat set, and an odd-looking leather recliner that seemed out of place and appeared to be older than the rest of the furniture.

The door he had entered through consisted of solid redwood or something similar and covered an entrance, at least, nine feet tall. He had no doubt it was thick enough to stop nearly any bullet or other attempted assault.

“I can afford it, of course,” she said, interrupting his thoughts. “It’s the principle of the thing. He knows I have money, so he charges accordingly. I won’t give him the satisfaction of giving in. Besides, it’s entertaining.”

He had to admit that was true. The dogs were shrinking back from the chain-link border, where Jesus was spraying some kind of chemical they didn’t like.

Alec smiled, then turned back to his host. “So, I’m going to be working with you for a while?”

“For me.”

“Excuse me?”

“Not with me, for me. I’ll tell you who to go chat with, how far you can go, and you do as you are told.”

“Okay.”

“You’re new.”

“I am. I just started and you’re my first assignment, I guess.”

“I’m not your assignment, but I will give you one. They’ll be simple ones at first, but I specialize in less resistant customers.”

“What does that mean?”

“What’s your title?” she asked him.

“Collector.”

“Have you been dealt a card yet?”

“I’m not sure what that means.”

“Ah, they do send them to me green. Okay, let me explain. I’m what you call a ‘Collector One’. I contact people who may be behind on their debts a little, and verbally encourage them to catch up.”

“Verbally encourage?”

“You know, like when you get behind on your credit card payment, and you get a phone call? That’s me, only for Solitaire.”

“Can I ask how you got recruited?”

“Sure. I was a bank collector for about five years, but I was getting paid shit. I drove an eleven-year-old Kia to work, lived in a shit-ass apartment, and ate out once a month at most. But my recovery rate was nearly 87%. I would call people, empathize, tell them why they should pay, and I would make arrangements with them they nearly always kept.

“Someone from Solitaire noticed. Next thing I knew, I was working for them calling gamblers and the like. When successful, I collected a percentage of what people paid, a good one, and I was making real money. Next came this house, the adopted dogs, and the cars, furniture, all the good stuff.”

“Impressive.”

“I think so. You, my friend, are a Collector Two. If my efforts don’t work, you get to go make an in-person visit before my next phone call. It tends to motivate people to pay much faster.”

“I figured that.”

“I’ll tell you how far you can go in your efforts. If we collect, you and I split the percentage. If our methods aren’t persuasive enough, we pass things on to the next level.”

“Okay. Sounds good.”

“Do you have a gun?”

“Yes.”

“You don’t use it unless I say, and at this level, you never, ever kill a target. Get me?”

“Got it. Never kill a target.”

“I mean it. If they die, their debt becomes yours, understood?”

“Yes.”

“Here’s your first job,” she handed him an address. “Bruises only. No broken bones. No further than a simple roughing up.”

“I can do that,” he said, reading the slip of paper.

“Report back here when you’re done.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

He left through the front door, almost ashamed to walk to his aging Chevy. Hopefully, if this new job went well, he wouldn’t be driving it for long.

Come to think of it, he hadn’t even asked how much he was getting paid for this one.

At a solid six-foot-nine, Alec didn’t often have to result to violence. He was trained in martial arts, several of them, but as a security guard and bouncer, he didn’t often use them outside the Dojo.

People saw him and his size, he asked them to do something, and they did it.

Still, he hadn’t been known for restraint. When he did have to drop the hammer on someone, he tended to underestimate his own strength, their weakness, or the violence needed to resolve the situation.

The first time he’d ever been charged with assault was also the first time he was approached by a well-dressed man from an organization called ‘Solitaire’. The man had met him outside of the county jail when he was released on bail. Turns out the man had paid to spring him.

Alec turned him down, suspicious of something that seemed too good to be true. He’d taken his card anyway. The second fight resulted not only in his arrest, but he’d also been suspended by this boss. So, he called the number he’d been given, the man bailed him out again, Alec quit his job over the phone, and here he was.

The car belched a large plume of blue smoke as he accelerated from the first stoplight and headed toward his destination. Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All album blasted from the speakers.

As he turned into what he knew to be the right neighborhood, he slowed and turned the radio down, which somehow enabled him to see the house numbers better. He stopped almost directly in front of the house he’d been sent to, turned off the engine, and silence descended.

The house looked pretty ordinary, probably three bedrooms or so, a two-car garage, painted a pale shade of blue. The white paint on the trim and shutters might have should have been refreshed five years before.

Alec unfolded from the tiny vehicle and strode to the aging front door covered in scratches and looking worn down. He knocked, hard and loud, and it shook in its frame. Any harder and it might have flown open.

“Who is it?” a feminine voice said from the other side.

“Alec, from Solitaire,” he said, as he’d been instructed. “I need to have a word with you.”

There was a long pause, and he raised his fist to knock again when he heard a click, the rattle of a chain, and the door opened.

The woman in front of him was both thin and short, just over five feet tall if his guess was right. She looked to be in her early twenties, had long black hair that nearly reached her waist, and wore thick glasses perched on her nose. She wore a plain floral dress that reached all the way to the floor.

Alec consulted the piece of paper in his hand. “Terry?” he asked.

“Were you expecting someone different?” she asked.

“I—well, I don’t really know.”

“You’re here about my debt.”

“It seems you’re not answering your phone,” he said. “My employer—”

She burst into tears. “I know. I just can’t pay.”

“I’m afraid this isn’t a friendly request,” he told her. “This is what comes after the friendly visit. I’m here to tell you that you’ve been extended all the grace you’re going to get. The people you owe money to, the ones I work for, aren’t going to wait.”

“So,” she sniffed. “What are you going to do to me?”

“Convince you to pay,” Alec said without conviction. This was not at all what he imagined it would be. What was he going to do, just deck this tiny woman on the spot, rough her up a little bit? Hell, he’d barely have to touch her, and the fight would be over.

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