Authors: Caridad Pineiro
The Prince’s Gamble
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2012 by
Caridad Piñeiro Scordato
. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Entangled Publishing, LLC
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Edited by Nina Bruhns
Cover design by Tracy Loeffelholz Dunn
Manufactured in the United States of America
First Edition November 2012
The author acknowledges the copyrighted or trademarked status and trademark owners of the following wordmarks mentioned in this work of fiction:
Bentley, Escalade, Abercrombie & Fitch, Philippe Patek, Phillies Phanatic, Rolls Royce.
To Samantha: Congratulations on the opening of your OG SURF & SKATE SHOP. I am so proud of you for working to achieve your dreams.
Lower East Side, New York
“Did you get the warrant?” Kathleen Martinez asked as her department’s attorney pushed through the sea of FBI agents and local police waiting to rush the warehouse located at the far end of the block.
“Right here, Special Agent Martinez.” The young attorney slapped the papers into Kathleen’s hand.
Unwilling to risk that the case could get tossed due to even one miniscule error in the warrant, Kathleen carefully scanned the papers.
“Would you believe Ivanov’s lawyers were still trying to stonewall us before the judge, claiming their clients were unavailable?” the attorney said.
Kathleen blew out an annoyed breath. “I believe it.”
It had taken them weeks to track down the trail of a white slavery ring. An assortment of wiretaps and round-the-clock surveillance had led the FBI to this warehouse location on the Lower East Side, but for the last three days the warehouse owner’s attorneys had been tossing one road block after another in their way to prevent their entry into the building.
But no longer, she thought as she finished reading the warrant.
“Nice job, Agent Fleming. We’ve got everything we need here.” She passed it to the police lieutenant who would make the official arrests.
Turning to the men and women waiting for her word, she directed them to various positions based on the blueprint of the warehouse they had gotten from Ivanov’s real estate agent.
“Two people on each door,” she said and gestured each duo as to where to go.
“You two go to the roofs across the street. Signal when you’re in position. I’ll give the call to go in. Remember these are members of the Russian mob, so expect them to be well-armed and extremely dangerous. They may be holding captive at least half-a-dozen women.”
At her go-ahead gesture, her team donned their eye and ear protection against the stun grenades they would be using as they entered. The agents fanned down the block and into place. She looked at her partner. “You ready to roll, Kearny?”
Her partner checked his gun and nodded. “Ready when you are, Martinez.”
She took a deep breath and shifted her bulletproof vest for both comfort and security. She reached down and pulled her Sig-Sauer from her side holster. Made sure the magazine was securely in place and that another few rounds were in easy reach on the weapons harness strapped around her waist.
Engaging her radio, she instructed, “Units, report.”
One by one they confirmed they were ready, and she gave the go order. Once they were in, they would rely on hand signals due to the noise of the flash-bangs.
In practiced synchronicity they surged forward, keeping out of the line of sight until they were close to the warehouse. At another command, they breached the various entrances and announced themselves.
“FBI. Drop your weapons,” Kathleen called out as she entered, gun drawn. When they pushed ahead, a barrage of bullets greeted them.
She ducked behind a tall pile of equipment in wooden crates to avoid the automatic weapons fire. The seemingly endless stream of bullets ate away her protection and sent splinters of wood flying all around. She crouched down low and returned fire, taking out one man as he popped out from behind a corner to shoot in her direction.
From the far side of the building, one of her team members tossed out a flash-bang grenade and she prepped for the disorienting noise and flash. The loud explosion and blinding light from the grenade was followed by excited shouts in Russian and yet more gunfire. The physical concussion of the sound registered more than the sound itself thanks to the ear protection she wore.
She gave the hand signal to move ahead and then charged forward, her partner Kearny providing cover for her until she found protection behind a large pile of pallets. She covered for him, and from the rear of the building came the
of pistol fire and another powerful flash-bang explosion. A drift of smoke wafted into the air. One of the grenades must have ignited something in the warehouse.
A squat muscular man in a tank top that exposed his tattooed upper body burst from the haze created by the grenades. Riding low against his hip was an AK-47 that he fired ahead of him, indiscriminately sweeping the weapon back and forth to take down anything in his way.
Both she and Kearny fired, catching the shooter mid-body with several shots, and he crumpled to the ground. She rushed ahead to pull the weapon away from him.
“Secure him,” she instructed her partner and moved forward with two other agents who had cleared their way through the warehouse to join them. According to the blueprints, there were a series of rooms in the lower level of the building, but the stairs to reach them were in the center of the space.
The haze of smoke from the small fires the grenades had started obscured her vision. They were done with the flash-bangs and now there was chatter across her radio as her fellow agents advised they were securing the various areas of the warehouse. By the time she and Kearny reached the center stairs, all gunfire had ceased.
“Has the area been secured?” she asked her team members, and one by one they confirmed it.
She looked at the two agents with her and jerked her head in the direction of the stairs. “Follow me.”
Gun held at the ready, she verified that the stairwell was clear and rushed down with the two agents at her back. The stairs took them to a large open space lit by bright vapor lights. That empty space was ringed by a series of small closed stalls. From inside the stalls came an assortment of whimpers and screams.
Female voices, she was certain. The women who they had feared had been taken for the white slavery ring.
A ring with keys hung by the first stall door. She holstered her weapon and glanced at her backup as she approached the stall.
She located the key for the first unit, slipped it in, and unlocked the door. She jerked it open and the stench of offal and body sweat was so strong that it nearly drove her back. She rushed into the stall where a woman cowered in the corner, dirtied and scared.
The woman held her hands in front of her face as if to ward off a blow, revealing the weeping sores on her skin from the shackles on her wrists. A long heavy chain connected the shackles to the wall of the warehouse.
Kathleen cursed beneath her breath and approached the woman. Kneeled down before her to offer comfort. “We’re the FBI. You’re safe now.”
The woman began to cry, huge, heaving sobs that wracked her body and tightened Kathleen’s gut with anger.
With each stall they opened, the scene was repeated. Until the last one.
The woman in the corner this time was silent. Immobile. Kathleen touched her arm, but the woman didn’t respond. As she slipped her hand down to feel for a pulse, the woman’s hand dropped away limply and Kathleen found herself staring into dull, lifeless eyes.
Her body was still warm. She had not passed all that long ago.
Rage filled Kathleen’s gut. If they had just gotten here a little sooner, she might be alive. She rose slowly, hands fisted as her partner laid a hand on her shoulder.
“There was nothing you could do, Martinez.”
“We could have gotten here earlier, Kearny. We could have stopped this,” she said, gesturing to the woman’s still body.
“This blood isn’t on our conscience. It’s on the traffickers. And on Ivanov and his damn lawyer for delaying us,” Kearny replied.
She nodded and walked from the room to where her team was aiding the women they had managed to save. A host of EMTs had arrived to care for them as well as those who had been injured in the gun battle.
Luckily none of her people had suffered any serious injuries.
As she and Kearny directed the agents and EMTs on what to do, one thought kept running through the back of her brain.
Ivanov and his cohorts would pay for the delay that had cost that woman her life and added days of misery to the other captives.
No matter what it took, she’d make sure those responsible would get the punishment they deserved.
Atlantic City, New Jersey
Two years later
“I’ve heard you’re like tenth in line to the throne.”
Prince Alexander Ivanov smiled blandly as the young super model eyed him the way she might a bonbon she wanted to devour. Given the woman’s track record with men, Alexander suspected he would end up in the same place as that bonbon: eaten and then lost in the toilet to avoid the consequences.
“To be honest, I’m not really sure where my family fits into the whole succession scheme,” he replied, his tone as iced as the vodka they were sipping.
“Not possible,” she replied with a giggle he supposed she thought was sexy. She clutched the sleeve of his dinner jacket and leaned in, displaying her surgically amplified cleavage.
“Very possible, actually. I prefer that people judge me not by the Ivanov family name, but by what I accomplish.”
If the gathering in the casino party area was any measure of his success, he was in good shape. A dozen or more A-listers and even more wealthy and powerful New Jerseyans backslapped each other and tossed back drinks. It had only been months since Hurricane Sandy and its destruction. Reaching this point was a sign that things might be on their way back to normal.
Before his guest could dither another word, Alexander’s security chief slipped in through a private entrance. The set of his face spoke volumes.
“Please excuse me. It looks as if I’m needed.” With a regally dismissive dip of his head, he strode to his chief’s side.
“Still no sign of her?”
Jim Reynolds, his security chief, shook his head. “No sign and no word. That’s not like Vanessa.”
No, it wasn’t. Vanessa Wilson, their chief hostess for the Winter Palace, the upscale restaurant in Alexander’s Russian-themed casino, had never even been late to work. Now she’d been missing for nearly two days.
“You tried her mother?” They eased out of the party room and away from the casino’s vodka and caviar tasting festival.
Jim nodded as they headed to the personnel-only elevators. Alexander slipped in the key to access his private penthouse floor. After they were in the elevator and the door closed, his chief blew out a harsh breath.
“That’s what’s got me worried, boss. Her mom says they’d been a little short on cash, but all of a sudden Vanessa had a wad of bills in her purse.”
Alexander considered the report while they swiftly rose the twenty stories to his office and adjacent apartment. Vanessa was known to gamble at other casinos, and while he hoped the money had been from a streak of good luck, her disappearance warned otherwise.
Once they were safely behind closed doors in his office, he offered his chief a glass of wine, but the man politely refused.
Jim was the consummate professional, but then again, Alexander was much the same way. Some might even say he spent way too much time working and not enough time playing—namely his match-making mother—but Alexander didn’t care. He was determined to make the casino a success.
“What are you thinking, boss?” Jim asked at his prolonged silence.
“I’m thinking that between Vanessa’s disappearance and those escorts who have been visiting a little too often—“
“We’ve got trouble,” Jim finished.
“Can you guesstimate how many chips they’ve cashed in?” Alexander sat down behind his large, black lacquer desk.
Jim’s shoulders did a hesitant rise and fall. “Hard to say. Not enough individually to trigger a currency transaction report.”
“But a tidy sum altogether. Do you think they’re trying to launder money?” Alexander asked, while at the same time hoping his security chief would deny it.
“It’s very possible.” Jim stood before the desk, one hand clasping his wrist, legs slightly apart, in his veteran stance. The Marine MP years showed on his craggy face and the salt and pepper hair kept ruthlessly buzzed close to his scalp. His fighting condition body testified to his disciplined nature.
“We should call in the authorities, even if these women haven’t done enough to trip the reporting requirements.” Alexander steepled his forearms before him, twined his fingers together, and regarded his man.
Jim made a face as if something smelled bad at the mention of the Feds, but eventually shrugged his agreement. “What about Vanessa?”
His hostess’s absence and her sudden cash flow were worrisome. “If she’s involved, she’s in trouble. More reason for us to get the Feds involved immediately.”
Jim nodded and gestured to the phone on Alexander’s desk. “Do you want to make the call or should I?”
“It’s my family’s name on the building. I’ll make the call.”
Kathleen sat in her boss’s office and flipped through the report on Prince Alexander Ivanov—basic bio, assorted school transcripts, family history, and a vast collection of newspaper and magazine clippings. Many touted the opening of his themed casino in Atlantic City, the third jewel in the family’s gaming empire. They also owned casinos in Monaco and Macao. The family’s corporation owned it, but it was clear the casino was the prince’s brain child.
It had also been the prince who had donated not only millions, but his own personal time to help those who had been impacted by the hurricane which had nearly destroyed Atlantic City almost six months earlier. Even though the casino and the boardwalk had suffered damage in the days after the storm, the prince had opened the casino halls and rooms to house those who had been trapped by the surging waters or had lost their homes.
Within a few weeks of feverish work, the boardwalk in front of his casino had been rebuilt and the casino’s damage had been repaired and reopened. Not that you could really call the prince’s endeavor just a casino. Unlike some of the other Atlantic City gambling establishments, Russian Nights was obviously intended to be a “destination,” Kathleen thought as she ran down the list of amenities available to Russian Nights’ assorted guests.
Missing from the report on the prince? Any hint of the FBI’s earlier encounter with the Ivanov family, or why they were once again in front of the Agency.
“Color me confused, sir. What do we have to do with the prince?” she said, and caught another glimpse of his photo. Handsome didn’t quite cut it as a description. Stunning, possibly even beautiful, if you could call a man beautiful. But no amount of handsome could excuse being slime.
She closed the file and forced herself to focus on her boss, Assistant Director in Charge Tom Roberts, as he shifted uneasily in his chair.
“Ivanov called late last night and was routed to me. He has concerns about a missing hostess and a load of escorts cashing in chips,” Roberts advised.
“The chip cashing could be part of a money laundering operation. Has he filed the necessary reports?” she asked. Ivanov should have complied with the Bank Secrecy Act requirements for casinos if he was so worried.
“As far as we can tell, based on some very preliminary investigations, Ivanov is on the straight-and-narrow. But again, that’s very preliminary.”
Kathleen could read between the lines. Until cleared, Ivanov was a suspect. She was on board with treating him that way for her own reasons. “Two years ago in New York, I was involved in a case trying to shut down a white slavery ring.”
“Does this have something to do with Ivanov?”
She nodded. “We located a warehouse in Manhattan owned by one of the Ivanov family corporations. Their lawyers stonewalled us when we asked to search the premises. A woman died as a result. Others suffered longer than they should have.”
Roberts contemplated her and rubbed his chin. “Do you think the Ivanovs were involved with the white slavery ring?”
Kathleen mentally replayed all that she remembered of the investigation, wanting to be accurate. “There was nothing to connect the Ivanovs to the crime, but I never understood why they had their lawyers create such a fuss if they were innocent. I’ll have my old files transferred to us to refresh my memory and see if there’s anything I missed. I can also ask the locals if they have any reports of missing women in the area.” She paused and then plowed on. “That is if you want me on this case?”
Roberts gestured to the folder before her. “We asked you to transfer from New York because of your expertise with crimes of this nature, but since we’re not sure of Ivanov, I’d like you to be a little more hands on.”
“Hands on?” She opened the folder again to see Ivanov’s face staring out at her. She supposed with his looks, money, and royal connections, many women would love to be all “hands on” with him, but she didn’t. She’d already had a taste of the Ivanovs, and it had soured her impression of the family, and of him.
“What exactly did you have in mind, sir?”
Roberts grasped another folder, slapped a thumb drive on it, and pushed it in her direction. “Ivanov sent over quite a lot of information. I had another agent review it and I have no doubt that there is money laundering going on. It’s normally not in our jurisdiction, but combined with the possible kidnapping, it’s been decided we’ll keep the case.”
Kathleen set aside the thumb drive and did a quick flip through the information as well as the notes provided by the other agent. It was clear someone was moving large sums of cash and also funneling some of it to accounts in the Cayman Islands. All the data pointed to money laundering going on at the casino.
“It definitely looks like something we should investigate. If there’s a missing woman, there’s a strong possibility she’s connected to this somehow,” she said.
“That’s why I want you undercover in the casino as a new member of the Russian Nights security staff. That should make it easier for you to walk around and see what’s happening.”
“Twenty-four--seven. Ivanov is providing accommodations for you. We’ll select additional personnel to assist you. In the meantime, I’ll get others working on the missing hostess and have them report to you.”
Kathleen again flipped through the folder, considering her boss’s request. She normally didn’t do undercover, although she prided herself on being prepared for any situation. Not to mention that money laundering in the casinos fed a number of criminal enterprises as well as terrorist activities. Some of the 9/11 hijackers had been in Vegas before the attack, probably to collect the monies necessary for their sick plans.
Then there was Alexander Ivanov himself. She took out the glossy photograph and stared at his perfect face. She could almost see the silver spoon in his hand and women trailing after him for a taste of what he offered. But nearly four years in the FBI had taught her that people like Prince Alexander thought themselves above the law. Whatever his rationale for calling them in, she’d ferret out the truth—and make sure no one got hurt. Not like two years ago.
She closed the file. “When do I start?”
“I’ll call the prince and tell him to expect you by noon.”
She nodded, but added, “I’ve had some phone contact with a police officer in the area as part of other investigations--Detective Peter Roman. He may have more on what’s happening, as well as on Ivanov. I’ll check in with him first if you don’t mind. We’ll need the locals to help us with the arrests anyway.”
“It’s your case, Special Agent. Whatever you think is appropriate.”