A client’s secret puts Lucien Cross on a collision course with ruthless gangsters…
Being a private eye isn’t easy. That’s one thing Lucien Cross is about to find out the hard way. Ever since he opened Cross Security and Investigations, it’s been one blunder after another. And his latest mistake might mean his death.
As a businessman, Cross is all about the bottom line. He’ll take as many cases as he can. The more affluent the client, the better. But Lucien has no idea the danger he faces now that he’s agreed to help recover a client’s stolen property.
It should be a simple retrieval, but since his newest client has failed to disclose a few “minor” details, Lucien will find himself in a war with cold-blooded killers. It’s all or nothing for the city’s newest security firm and Lucien Cross. One misstep could lead to his company’s destruction or his untimely demise.
Release date: July 30, 2021
Print pages: 279
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“You’re in a good mood.” Justin glanced at me as I entered the office, confused by my humming. “Did you get laid?”
“No, but on the bright side, I didn’t get screwed.” I picked up the stack of mail and flipped through the envelopes. Bill. Bill. Check. Junk. I put the junk in the shred pile, left the bills for Justin to pay, and tore open the check from our latest corporate security overhaul of Rathbone Enterprises. I turned to the desk behind me, but our receptionist was nowhere to be found. “Where’s Gloria?”
“But she’s the receptionist. Why is she getting breakfast?”
“Lucien,” Justin leaned back in his chair, “aside from the hired muscle and the one forensic expert you couldn’t live without, it’s just the three of us.”
I thought for a moment. Cross Security and Investigations needed more assistants, more techs, and more office space. However, the first two would have to wait until after the move. And to do that, we needed more money. The settlement I’d gotten would put us on the map. But I wanted to make sure we had an ideal office location. The bigger and bolder we looked on the outside, the better.
So far, the vast majority of clients I’d signed had known me from my days on Wall Street and trusted that my business savvy and head for wise tech investments that had made them millions would also safeguard those millions from hackers, thieves, and questionable employees. I’d only taken on a couple of unknowns since. They’d been mostly minor cases with one glaringly obvious exception. Jade McNamara. Again, I found myself humming. Shit. The smile tugged at the corners of my lips. This had to stop.
Rubbing a hand over my mouth, I tried to focus on the negatives. The scars on my back, the weeks spent in the hospital, and the weeks spent recovering were all checks in the con column. No amount of money could fix that or what I’d done to the man who tried to kill Jade and me.
Yet, I found myself focusing on the positives. The payout from the police department padded my bank account. It’d pay for our move. It’d even pay for the equipment Amir Karam forced me to agree to before he’d sign a contract to work for Cross Security. Plus, it meant something far more meaningful. Jade was safe, and in a few hours, she’d be coming home.
Justin quirked an eyebrow. “Seriously, Lucien, what’s going on?”
“Nothing. I was just thinking Rathbone’s check might be enough to hire someone to run errands.”
“Isn’t that my job? Or are you finally promoting me?”
“You already own a stake in the company. Isn’t that enough?”
“I’d like my own office.”
“We’ll see. King Realty is scouting locations for us. As soon as they find something that lives up to Amir’s lab specifications, we’ll discuss your office situation.”
“I hope this guy’s as good as his reputation.” Justin reached into the drawer for the checkbook. “Are you sure you don’t want to set up automatic bill pay? What happens if I take a vacation and no one’s here to keep the lights on?”
“I guess we’ll work in the dark.”
“At least you have a plan, boss.”
“Don’t I always?” I went into what had once been a closet and was now our break room and made a cup of coffee using the espresso maker. Then I made one for Justin and returned to the outer office. “What’s on the agenda today?”
“You have a meeting with your new client at nine, lunch with Miranda to discuss extending her contract at eleven, and conference calls with prospective businessmen to discuss corporate security at two and four.” He slipped the check into the envelope and sealed it. “Are you sure you don’t want to try online trading instead? We’re money guys. We served our time on Wall Street. We could take another stab at it. Don’t you think we’re better equipped to do that than this?”
“Hey.” I narrowed my eyes, knowing my former intern turned executive assistant wanted to yank my chain. It served me right for coming into the office humming a pop song. Frankly, I should have been relieved he didn’t shoot me on sight. Thankfully, he was still one gun safety class away from a carry permit. “I didn’t get my P.I. license for nothing.”
“Yeah, well, I just thought maybe after everything you might have reconsidered. We’re blackballed from most of the investment banks and major trading companies, but you could start your own or invest for yourself. You have that kind of cash now.”
“I had enough before.”
“I never thought I’d hear you say that.” Just as I opened my office door, he asked, “Are you sending a car to pick up Jade from the airport, or are you going to do it yourself?”
I turned. “How’d you know?”
“I might not have a fancy P.I. license, but I picked up a trick or two.” He also organized my calendar and scheduled most of my meetings.
“I’m picking her up.”
“Is she moving back?”
“I don’t know.”
Justin nodded and returned to paying the bills.
Settling in behind my desk, I reached for the intel I’d compiled on my newest client, Trey Knox. He’d seen the ad I’d taken out on the back of a business magazine and decided to give me a call. I’d done the consultation over the phone.
Knox’s home had been burglarized. His collection of valuable sports memorabilia had been stolen, along with whatever cash, jewelry, and other high-ticket items the thieves had been able to haul off. The police had yet to catch the culprits, and I doubted they would. Even Knox doubted them, which is why he came to me.
Specialty items like signed jerseys and MVP rings would be difficult to fence without catching someone’s attention. That must have been what the police were counting on, assuming they even gave a damn about helping Mr. Knox recover his property, but I was biased.
I went to the police academy and almost graduated. Almost. But my father, Mr. Police Commissioner, made sure that didn’t happen. Just like he let an asshole like Scott Renwin carry a badge.
Again, I found myself falling into the bottomless pit of anger and bitterness. So I shook it off. Mr. Knox had a problem. The cops hadn’t helped him yet, so in the meantime, I might as well try. That’s why I started Cross Security. It was time I put my money where my mouth was.
Shaking off the unexpected anger, I reread the copy of the police report Knox had sent me. The security system had been dismantled, not disarmed. Whoever broke into Knox’s house had to be a professional crew.
Knox lived in a gated community. Getting in and out wouldn’t be easy. The security guards and cameras didn’t catch anything. The interior cameras had been shorted out, and according to the guards’ statements, no one suspicious entered or left the area on the night in question. Knox didn’t see anything, and neither did his neighbors. The police believed the thieves breached the residence by entering through a first floor window. But I had my doubts.
According to what I’d found, several break-ins had occurred in the area over the last few weeks. The police had no leads, but they assumed it was the same crew. However, none of those other burglarized locations had high-end security systems. So either the crooks had moved on to bigger and better things, or someone else broke into Knox’s house, knew exactly how to get in and out without tripping an alarm, and knew what to take. That meant it might be personal.
“Tell me your secrets, Trey Knox.” My fingers flew over the keyboard. Knox, Trey. No criminal record. I checked his employment history. He’d worked his way up to acquisitions manager at the same company where he first started interning seventeen years ago. That probably meant he was loyal and hard-working or unimaginative, complacent, and a kiss-ass. One or the other. It also meant his colleagues must know him well. They’d probably been to his house for barbecues or to watch the big game. That could make them suspects.
I wrote a note to ask about recent problems at work. Then I moved on to his social media presence, but I didn’t find much. He remained professional online. Everything was buttoned up.
After a few quick searches, I found some fantasy sports leagues Knox belonged to, but that didn’t tell me much about his real-life friends or acquaintances. I bookmarked the pages, figuring if nothing else turned up I could do a deep dive on these sports maniacs to see if one of them had the skills and balls necessary to conduct the break-in. As far as I could tell, Knox’s main concern had been his stolen sports memorabilia. He had signed all-star jerseys, a championship ring, pennants, and game balls. And they had all been taken.
According to Knox, these items were irreplaceable. He didn’t seem to give a damn about his watches, cash, or stolen electronics. Those he could replace. His precious collection was another story, and the longer it was gone, the less likely the police were to recover it. Even if they did, they’d hold the items as evidence until after the trial. When I mentioned that tidbit to Knox, he’d grown even more desperate.
I had e-mailed him my boilerplate contract to review and my daily rate. He told me he’d think about it, only to call back an hour later and say he wanted my help. That was two days ago.
I pressed the button on the intercom. “Justin, did you run a credit check on Trey Knox?”
“His credit’s not stellar, but he has enough in the bank to pay us.”
“What about his car and house?”
“Lease and mortgage.”
“Credit card debt?”
“He makes payments every month. His cards have twenty thousand dollar limits, and they’re each about three-quarters full.”
“How many cards does he have?”
That’s a plus. “Did anything send up a red flag?”
“Not that I’ve seen.” The intercom clicked, and Justin stepped into my doorway, giving me the look that told me he thought it was ridiculous we had an intercom when he was sitting fifteen feet away. “Do you think this is a scam? Insurance fraud?” He handed me a few printed pages. Most of the unpaid charges on Knox’s cards were season tickets and box seats to football and baseball games and auction charges. A few were for online gambling and fantasy leagues. This guy really loved sports.
“He likes expensive toys, but if he just gave up his hobby, he could pay off his cards. So it’s probably not a scam, but I’ll ask him if he had his collection appraised or insured.”
“You might want to take a look at his homeowner’s insurance policy too.”
I pointed a finger pistol at Justin. “Brilliant suggestion. Call Knox and ask him to bring it with him today.”
My assistant glanced at the time. “He might already be on his way, but I’ll see if I can catch him.”
“Do you have somewhere else to be?” I asked.
Knox shook his head, tearing his eyes away from the clock. “Sorry, I was just thinking about traffic.”
I rocked back in my chair. “Is this everyone who’s been to your house?”
“Yeah, I think so.” Knox rubbed his forehead and leaned closer to check the list he’d made for the third time. “The police said the cleaning lady has an alibi, but I never thought she’d do something like this. None of my friends would.”
“What about your colleagues?”
“Nah, they’re cool guys. The only times they’ve stopped by were to watch games or help me crunch numbers for work.”
“What about repairmen or delivery guys?”
“The house is still new enough that I haven’t had to get anything repaired, touch wood.” Knox knocked twice on the top of my desk. “The cable guy’s the only person I can think of who’s been inside that I didn’t know, and that was when I first moved in. Everything was still in boxes.”
“When did you move in?” I asked, too lazy to look at the paperwork.
“Four-ish years ago.”
“Any problems with your neighbors? Any complaints or issues?”
“Look, Lucien, I’ve already been over these questions with the police. No one I know would do something like this. Whoever came into my house and stole my stuff is a complete stranger. I wouldn’t affiliate with criminals or shady types.” He’d even said it more than once for emphasis during our previous conversation.
“I wasn’t suggesting that, but it seems the thieves might have had prior knowledge of your security system and the layout of your house. One might even entertain the notion that the thieves knew what was inside your house, which is why you were targeted.”
“Perhaps.” Knox reached for the list of stolen items. “Nowadays, everyone has a tablet. They probably just got lucky with my VR set.”
“Did they just get lucky with two designer watches, a few pairs of gold cufflinks, and five grand in cash?”
“Yeah, I guess.” Knox put the list down. “I’d like to get everything back, but I’m hiring you to find my memorabilia. That’s your top priority. The rest is just icing.”
I reached for the list. “Four signed jerseys, a World Series pennant–”
“Signed by every single player.”
“Uh-huh.” It was worth less than two thousand dollars, but just like everything else in Knox’s collection, he thought it was priceless. “A few bobbleheads, two signed basketballs, a hockey puck from the Stanley Cup finals.” I looked up from the paper. “No soccer?”
“Soccer, the most popular sport in the world.”
He stared at me in horror. “I like American sports.”
“America has a soccer team.”
“They suck.” He jerked his chin at the list. “Football, American football, that’s where it’s at.”
“Do they call them baseball cards?” I pointed to the page. “They’re football cards, right? Since it’s football.” I might have been taking a little too much joy out of asking these pointless questions, but it made me feel like a real gumshoe. Perhaps, I needed the practice.
“You can call them trading cards. They have the player stats on the back. Mine were mint, all signed, and encased in protective sleeves.”
“Good idea to keep your assets in protective sleeves.” My thoughts drifted to Jade’s impending arrival. I should make a stop at the pharmacy before I picked her up, just in case she missed me as much as I’d missed her these last few months.
Knox continued to talk about his collection, flashing photos of various pieces toward me as he scrolled through the content on his phone. I tried to pay attention, but this reminded me of second grade show and tell when that one geeky kid who had no friends insisted on showing us his action figures he kept inside their boxes. As a seven year old, I found the idea of having a toy and not playing with it asinine. And Knox’s fondness and devotion to a collection of things that he kept framed and on display but served little to no use seemed just as asinine. “If nothing else, I want that MVP ring back. It took me years to find one for sale, and once I did, I spared no expense. That’s what you have to find.”
“Why didn’t you keep your valuables in locked cases or a safe?” I asked.
Knox stared at me as if I’d said something in Klingon. “I bought them to enjoy them. I have them on display so I can see them. Now, when I go home, there’s nothing but bare walls and shelves.” He looked utterly distraught. “I’d do anything to get my stuff back. I can’t believe someone would stoop so low to do something like this. Cash is one thing, but a man’s prized possessions are something else entirely.”
“So you think the thieves took your collection as a personal attack? To add insult to injury?”
“I don’t know. I never thought this would happen.” He scratched his neck. “You keep saying thieves. Why do you think it’s more than one guy?”
“The police said a crew’s been hitting houses in the area. They’re under the impression they are responsible for the break-in at your place, which means once they try to fence or pawn your collection, they’ll get nabbed.”
“I don’t want to wait for that to happen. By then, it’ll be too late. It could all be gone.” His breath became frantic, and his cheeks pinkened. “I didn’t hire you to fall into line with what the cops think. During my consultation, you said you didn’t buy into that. Have you changed your mind? Maybe this isn’t the right fit for me after all.”
He moved to stand, and I watched, waiting to see if he’d storm out. Instead, he stopped mid-squat, his hands firmly grasping the arms of the chair while he waited for my answer.
“You seem certain this isn’t the same crew. What aren’t you telling me?” I asked.
“Nothing, but you said recovering my stolen collection wasn’t a police priority.”
“It isn’t, but I’ll make it mine.”
“That’s not how it sounded a second ago.”
I cleared my throat, forgetting how much hand-holding went into dealing with non-corporate clients. “In that case, I apologize for the miscommunication. However, you said taking your collection felt personal, which indicates whoever did this knows about your hobby and how big of a score taking these items really is.”
“Like I was targeted by a professional thief?”
“Given the way the security system was dismantled, more than one individual was involved in the actual crime.” I reached for the copy of the police report. “I’ve done my homework on your security system. In order to dismantle it so as not to trip the alarm, three people had to remove the connectors from these three boxes simultaneously. So it is a crew, whether or not it’s the same crew who’s been targeting other houses has yet to be seen. Since you are such a sports enthusiast, I’m guessing you must frequent auction sites and message boards. Have you bragged to anyone online about your scores?”
“Sure, I guess.”
“Okay.” I made a note to take a look at his browser history to see if another sports fan had gotten pissed and decided to take what he wanted instead.
“I have paperwork on everything that was taken. Certificates of sale and authenticity.” He grabbed the attaché case off the seat beside him and pulled out a folder. “The information on the auction sites and houses where I made the purchases is included.”
“Great.” Too bad all my clients weren’t this prepared. I took the folder and skimmed the information. This would require several phone calls, employee background checks, and possibly a peek into their records for details on the other bidders interested in these stolen items. If nothing else, the losing bidders might have their ears to the ground on ways to obtain these treasured pieces of sports history through less than legal means. I’d have to do some digging. “What about insurance?”
“My house insurance covers theft up to a certain amount. I didn’t upgrade when I made these last few purchases.”
I clicked the messenger icon on my computer and typed a message to Justin, asking him to see if Knox had made any inquiries into selling his collection or any of the more expensive pieces from the collection. Unless he had already sold off the stolen items, I didn’t think this was an insurance scam.
“Do you think you can find them?” Knox asked. “They’re all special, but that ring is one of a kind. It’s my most prized possession. My dad had scrimped and saved to take me to that game. That’s the game where my favorite player got named MVP and received the ring. My dad passed recently, so I never got to show him what I bought as a memento, but it has special meaning to me.”
“I’ll do what I can. You said your friends and colleagues wouldn’t do anything like this. What about a vengeful ex?”
He shook his head.
“What about recent paramours? A crew broke into your house. Perhaps, they have a fourth working with them who picks out the marks, assesses the layout and security, and reports back.”
“You make this sound like a heist.”
“Yeah, I guess it was.”
“So girlfriends? Hookups? Any new people come into your house or life in the last few weeks?”
“No one. I wouldn’t put it past my college ex, but we haven’t seen each other in half a decade. She’s never been to my house or seen the MVP ring or my recent additions.”
Thoughts of Jade drifted to mind, my blood boiling at the thought of her vengeful ex and the damage he inflicted. My back still pinched every time I turned too quickly, and my legs would go numb on occasion. The doctors said that was normal, and the symptoms should continue to improve as long as I continued doing the exercises and following their advice. Nonetheless, it pissed me off every time it happened.
“Yoo-hoo.” He waved his hand in front of my face. “You still with me?”
“I’ll look into her anyway.” Picking up the pen, I remained poised to write until he finally gave me her name. While he expounded on what went wrong between them, I ran a quick background check and did several searches. She wasn’t responsible. She didn’t even live in the tri-state area. Sighing, I tossed my pen back on the desk. “Do you have any enemies or some sort of fucked up family drama or sibling rivalry going on?”
“Not that I can think of.”
“Is it possible this could be a prank?”
“Okay, so we’re back to looking at a professional crew, most likely comprised of strangers.” Still, the surgical precision of the break-in made me question that assessment. “Can you think of any other collectors who might want to take your collection from you?”
While Knox blathered on, I took notes, but strangers on the other end of the bidding wars wouldn’t necessarily know where Knox lived or what kind of security he had in place. The break-in wouldn’t have been this clean. Something didn’t fit.
“When can you start searching?” he asked.
“I’ve already started.”
“Okay. How long do you think it’ll take?”
“For a recovery?”
“I’ll reach out to fences, do some research, and see what’s what. I told you before that I can’t guarantee results. But your chances are better with me than the police department.”
“What kind of odds are we talking?”
I’d never worked a recovery before, but finding stolen property and returning it shouldn’t be that difficult, especially when dealing with one of a kind items like these. I could probably put the word out, offer a huge payday, and wait for the thieves to surface. The bringing them to justice part would be more difficult, especially since I was to recover the evidence, not turn it in, but that would be up to my client to decide. He just wanted his stuff back. “Fifty-fifty.”
“All right, let’s see what you can do.” He shook my hand.
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