Ben Sanders Excerpt: The Stakes

The Stakes by Ben Sanders follows an NYPD robbery detective who uses his insider cop knowledge to rob rich criminals (available March 6, 2018).

Rip-offs are a dangerous game, but heist man Miles Keller thinks he’s found a good strategy: rob rich New York criminals and then retire early, before word’s out about his true identity. New town, new name, no worries.

Retirement can’t come soon enough, though. The NYPD is investigating him for the shooting of a hitman named Jack Deen, who was targeting Lucy Gates―a former police informant and Miles’s ex-lover.

Miles thinks shooting hitmen counts as altruism, but in any case a murder charge would make life difficult. He’s ready to go to ground, but then Nina Stone reappears in his life.

Nina is a fellow heist professional and the estranged wife of LA crime boss Charles Stone. Miles last saw her five years ago, and since then her life has grown more complicated: her husband wants her back, and he’s dispatched his go-to gun thug to play repo man.

Complicating matters is the fact that the gun thug in question is Bobby Deen, cousin of the dead Jack Deen―and Bobby wants vengeance.

The stakes couldn’t be higher, but Nina has an offer that could be lucrative. Maybe Miles can stick around a while longer…

PROLOGUE

LOS ANGELES, CA

Nina Stone

They were quite the pair, the fat man and the killer Bobby Deen. Nina said to him when they put her in the car, “How’re you spelling Deen—like the movie star, or the porn star?” Like she was trying to connect, steer them down a road where she wouldn’t end up dead. But the man just gave her a look and said, “Double ‘e.’”

He only had a few expressions in his repertoire, but she figured that was the idea: the one look did a lot of work. He’d give you the line and those eyes, and you’d know it wasn’t going any further. He was dressed sharp as always, wearing his tan hat that wasn’t quite a Stetson—too flat and narrow—the brim low across his eyes but never quite hiding them. He had on a black suit today, and even seventy-degree L.A. couldn’t draw a sweat. The fat man was dripping for two though, funking up the Chrysler as they turned off Washington Boulevard into Marina del Rey, a thicket of masts on their right, apartment buildings farther off, on the other side of the water. She and Bobby were in back, the fat man alone up front and driving with one hand, tapping a beat on the wheel with a finger that had three gold rings and an extra knuckle. He leaned across the passenger seat to see something across the marina, clucked his tongue as he pointed.

“Yeah, Bobby, that’s the place.” He came upright again, lifted his head to find Bobby Deen’s eyes in the mirror.

Bobby said, “Oh yeah.” Courteous, but not making it a question.

The fat man said, “We took a guy in that place on the end, top floor, had a mess by the end of it, get halfway through the cleaning and the plumbing backs up—I mean like, the shower’s full of goo, and it just would not go down.” He laughed—lots of fluid, a pack-a-day acoustic. “And of course there’s like a Realtor or buyers or whatever coming the next day, so there we are out at three A.M. trying to buy a sucker thing. A plunger.”

Bobby Deen said, “Mmm.” Not getting anything out of it. He was Hispanic, but he wasn’t the gangbanger type of thug. He had tattoos showing at his collar and at his wrist when he checked the time, but they were too well done to be prison ink. He looked like a well-turned-out cartel guy, if there was such a thing.

The fat man watched him in the mirror a moment longer, maybe wanting a smile or a new expression out of Bobby Deen, but he gave it up and just grinned at the road, shrugging as he said, “You gotta be there, I guess. I don’t know. It was something. Place wouldn’t sell, either. We still got it.”

Nina said, “So why don’t you keep me there, instead of dumping me at sea?”

The fat man said, “Yeah, that’s a good idea. You promise not to stand on the balcony and shout for help?”

Bobby Deen smiled at that one. The fat man saw it in the mirror and seemed to take it as high acclaim: cracked up with a fake laugh, like trying to cash in on his comedy gold. He faded off into wry chuckles and said, “I’ll just lock you in the kitchen, call ahead so you’ve got time to bake me something.”

Nina said, “I’d probably just start you on salads.”

The boat had easy access. The road was on the edge of the marina, and there were little gated jetties off the sidewalk where the yachts were moored. No one out here today though, on a Wednesday afternoon. The fat man counted gate numbers, saying them on his breath as they crawled along, and he stopped them at the curb just before the road went off to the left, away from the marina. He leaned across to open the glove compartment, wheezing as he stretched, the wind coming out of him like sitting on a broken air mattress.

Nina looked at Bobby again, and somehow he had his switchblade out. He held it underhand with his elbow cocked, and when the blade sprang the point appeared just below her eye.

He said, “Hands.”

She said, “You could cut me up in the apartment. I wouldn’t be too hard on the pipes.”

The fat man was tuned out, reading off a sheet of printed instructions: “If your access system is the Trident Three-Fifty Prestige—yeah, yeah, yeah—here we are, hold the Trident access card to the reader window and wait until the permission light is green. I fucking did that last time, I don’t know why they just tell you the exact same thing.”

Bobby Deen wasn’t listening, still looking at Nina from under the edge of his hat. He said, “There’s no mess this way. Hands.”

She held up her hands and without glancing down he slipped the blade between her pressed wrists, jerked slightly, and sliced the plastic cuffs like they were twine. Bobby kept his eyes on her as he picked up the scrap of plastic and slipped it in his coat.

He said, “Once the gate’s open, you’re going to get out and walk down the ramp to the boat.”

He’d nailed the art of talking quietly enough, you could hear the threat between the lines. What would happen if you didn’t do as he said.

The fat man was out of the car now, all two hundred seventy pounds of him rounding the hood, and as Bobby Deen got out and joined him on the sidewalk, she saw that funny contrast again: Bobby all squared away, and the fat man looking like he’d just run a brisk mile—breathing hard, aviators askew, wet hair sticking up where he’d palmed it back. His shirt was open three buttons, and the cross on the gold chain he wore was hidden in a thatch of chest hair.

Nina’s door was locked on the inside, and Bobby came around and let her out. The masts were pinging from the ropes moving in the breeze, and there was a salty odor coming off the water—a nice cleanser after the stale heat of the car.

The fat man was waving the card at the reader, not having any luck. He was giving the thing a piece of his mind, too, swearing at it with language that’d make his gums bleed if he kept it up.

Bobby shut the car door with a careful knuckle and said, “Hold it still, might be better.” Looking at Nina as he said it, and not seeming impatient. Happy to stand here on the sidewalk in the sun.

“Yeah, I tried it every goddamned way. Ah, here we go.” Something beeped, and the gate clanged as the lock disengaged, and the fat man shoved through.

Bobby said, “You didn’t lock the car.”

“Oh shit. Yeah.” The fat man turned midway on the ramp and locked the Chrysler with the remote, grinned at Nina now approaching.

She stopped in front of him, shaded her eyes as she looked across the water. “Where’s this apartment, exactly?”

The fat man said, “It’s on Shut Your Mouth Avenue.” Looking past her to Bobby as he said it, and the lack of fake laughs told her Bobby hadn’t smiled this time.

She waited a moment, forming the line, and then said, “If I’m going to be sleeping with the fishes, it’d be nice to sleep with one of you two first.”

Bobby would be her preference, if it came to it, but she wanted the fat man to think it was an equal-opportunity offer.

It went quiet.

This was the first time she’d suggested something and the fat man hadn’t laughed it off. He turned and glanced at the apartments across the water and then looked back at her, still not saying anything and still not moving on the ramp. She knew he was taking this idea seriously, or he would have said something by now. Bobby must have reached the same conclusion, because when the fat man finally opened his mouth, Bobby got in first:

“Lenny. Get on the boat.”

“Bobby, chill.” The fat man raised his shoulders, spread his arms. “It’s my job.”

“And the job’s a boat ride, so that’s what we’re doing.”

The fat man didn’t answer, just gave a half-smile and vented disbelief in a whisper as he looked across the water. Then he shrugged like he could take it or leave it, and started down the ramp again.

Bobby said, “You too.”

His voice right in her ear. She turned and looked at him, his expression neutral, eyes on the boat and the task at hand.

Nina said, “And what’s your price?” She looked him up and down. “Maybe a Brooks Brothers voucher?”

He gave a long blink, but that was the only sign that maybe his patience was running out. He said, “Get on the boat.”

Ten minutes later they were heading west on calm water, their wake in a long, wide swath behind them and L.A. disappearing in the east like it was being lowered on a slow platform. The fat man was at the helm, shirt off and a life vest buckled on over his folds, glasses dewy with bow spray. The sea was flat enough the nose was holding even, just a gentle rise and fall as they clapped along through a light ripple. They had Nina in the little cabin up front, hands and wrists bound with plastic ties, but she could see through the open door to the stern: Bobby Deen with a finger to his hat and dressed up like Death’s right-hand man, paying his respects to the fading city. She wondered what people would think if they saw them heading out, this thirty-foot launch with a 5XL thug at the wheel and Bobby Deen standing at the back like a figurehead stuck on at the wrong end.

After twenty minutes Bobby turned and shouted, “How far we going?”

The fat man eased back the throttle, and Nina felt the nose level out as they lost speed, the motor dropping from roar to deep burble.

The fat man said, “Far as we like. Want her dead, anything’ll do. Want her gone for good”—he shrugged—“normally go out past Catalina, even then we’ve had stuff wash up. She’d be news though, dead lady in Dolce Armana or whatever. Unless she’s shark food—that’d be funny.” He tugged a strap on his vest, getting it even tighter. “Depends on the current too, might take her all the way to Mexico, show up at Tijuana.” He smiled, pulled his chin back as he made his voice high and strained: “And den señor, you don’ know what happen, unteel Mehico police, dey call da fam’lee. Tell da mozzer all bout it, eh?”

He cracked himself up saying that, and Bobby Deen smiled again too, fixing a cuff button as he looked across the water, not seeming bothered by the cradling of the deck.

The fat man pointed at him and clicked his fingers. “Hey, yeah, see: that’s twice now. You got a sense of humor.”

Bobby Deen regarded him pleasantly, hands at his sides. “Who says I don’t?”

The fat man shrugged. “I don’t know. Someone was saying you’re like special relativity, you heard that one?”

Bobby shook his head.

The fat man said, “You know how like, speed of light’s always the same, doesn’t matter where you see it from?”

Bobby said, “So I’m told.”

The fat man grinned, coming to the punch line, folded his arms on his life vest as he said, “Same with you, any way you look at Bobby Deen, he’s always looking back from under his hat.” He clapped his hands and rocked his weight from foot to foot, and the whole boat joined in.

Bobby said, “I’ll remember that one,” and looked out over the water again, two shades of blue all around, the sky and ocean and the three of them in the center of it. He said, “Let’s put some blood in the water.”

“Nah, we’ll take it out a little farther.”

Nina said, “Don’t you want to rape me first?”

The fat man glanced at her and nudged his shades, a look on his face like the candy shop had talked at him through the glass. He glanced over at Bobby Deen as if waiting for permission.

Bobby said, “Close the door. I don’t care.”

The fat man leaned on the gunwale and then came upright again as the whole vessel yawed. He ran both hands through his hair and blew his breath out, getting flushed with just the thought of it. He said, “Yeah … but why’d she say it? She wants me in close so she can have the gun.”

“Or stab you with the keys.”

“They’re in the locker.”

“All right. So give me the gun.”

The fat man said, “You want a turn too?”

Bobby Deen shook his head. “No, I do not. And whatever you’re doing, do it fast.”

The fat man sucked air through his teeth, looked at the sky. “Yeah. Be good to get out of the sun, anyway. I didn’t put lotion on.”

He grinned and arched back to reach the revolver in his belt, and then passed it to Bobby. It was a little snub-nosed revolver, which Nina knew was a Smith & Wesson 500. The fat man started loosening the straps on his life vest and Bobby checked the load, opening the cylinder to see five .50-caliber rounds looking back.

The fat man was getting breathless, the rush kicking in too soon. He licked his lips and said, “You can do it with concrete too—make a big lump, forty, fifty pounds, cast a handcuff in, best anchor you ever seen.” Trying to seem offhand, bring his heart rate down so he’d be slower coming to the boil.

Bobby didn’t answer. He was out at the stern again, on the little swim platform that hid the propellers, the gun in his right hand hanging at his leg. He said, “Think you were right about the sharks. We should move farther out.”

“You got a fin or something?”

“I don’t know. Something just crested briefly. There you go.”

Bobby pointed with his free hand at something off at their eight o’clock, tracked it around the back of them, to seven, six—

The fat man came out onto the stern too, the boat sitting low and wallowing as he went out to the starboard corner, two hands in a visor at his brow and water lapping at his ankles. “How far out?”

“Hundred yards or so, he’s going pretty wide. Look, you can see him coming around.”

He kept his hand up, the finger sweeping through five, four, the fat man following but not seeing it yet, and at the three-o’clock mark Bobby Deen brought the pistol up and put a .50 Magnum through the back of the guy’s head.

The body made a slow, forward topple and landed with a hard splash, the foam going pink while the sound of the shot was still rolling out across the water.

Bobby stood there watching the body submerge, a finger to his hat brim and the smoking gun back at his side. He said, “What part of ‘Keep quiet and I’ll handle it’ did you not understand?”

Nina said, “I didn’t know if you were going to save me or help throw me over the side.”

“I would’ve just shot you and stayed on dry land.”

“Yeah, thanks. If we went to the apartment, you could’ve made him look like suicide. Now we have to hope the sharks eat his head.”

Bobby didn’t answer.

Nina said, “You mind if I drive?”

 

Copyright © 2018 Ben Sanders.

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Ben Sanders is the author of American Blood and Marshall’s Law, as well as New Zealand Fiction Bestsellers: The Fallen, By Any Means, and Only the Dead. Sanders’s first three novels were written while he was studying at university; he graduated in 2012 with a Bachelor of Engineering and now writes full-time. American Blood, his highly-anticipated American debut, published in November 2015, and the second in the series, Marshall’s Law,in April 2017. Sanders lives in Auckland, New Zealand.

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