CHEATER’S GAME

Cheater's Game

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Suffering brain damage from his days as a football player, Jake Lassiter says goodbye to the courtroom…until his nephew Kip desperately needs his help. Kip has been working with millionaire Max Ringle in a shady scheme to help rich, entitled kids gain admission to elite universities.

The mastermind of the fraud, Ringle cops a plea to save his own hide and shifts the blame to Kip who’s charged with multiple federal crimes. Dr. Melissa Gold, a famed neurologist and Lassiter’s fiancée, supervises experimental treatments intended to keep the ailing lawyer strong enough for a grueling trial. As a fiery showdown looms with Ringle, Lassiter risks everything – including his own life – to keep his nephew out of prison.

A Kindle Unlimited title, “Cheater’s Game” may be ordered HERE.

PRAISE FOR “CHEATER’S GAME”

“A riveting legal thriller that Grisham fans will love.” —Blue Ink (starred review)

“The recent college admissions scandal provides the spark for Edgar finalist Levine’s clever [and] exciting ‘Cheater’s Game.’” —Publishers Weekly

“Clever, funny and seriously on point when it comes to the inequities of society and the justice system, Cheater’s Game is top-notch stuff from Paul Levine. His Jake Lassiter is my kind of lawyer!” —Michael Connelly, New York Times #1 Bestselling Author

“One seismic courtroom battle…an occasion for pyrotechnics that really blaze.” —Booklist

“Paul Levine, whose ‘Solomon vs Lord’ was named one of the ‘Best Legal Thrillers of the 21st Century,’ is again firing on all cylinders. ‘Cheater’s Game’ is a razor-sharp, rollicking legal thriller that deftly transforms the college admissions scandal into a hugely entertaining crime story.” —BestThrillers.com

“Only a writer as experienced, clever, funny, and flat-out brilliant as Paul Levine could make the legal issues of the college scandal so clear and also so ridiculously entertaining. The courtroom scenes not only ring with authenticity, they zing with wit, intelligence, and pure fun.” —Lee Goldberg, New York Times #1 Bestselling Author

“Great reading and great courtroom drama. A highly recommended read.” —Book Review Crew

“The courtroom scenes fly by in a flurry of cross-examination, colorful witnesses, and creative legal shenanigans. Clever foreshadowing hints at big twists without robbing them of their effectiveness. The trial races toward a conclusion that is both satisfying and startling.” —Foreword Reviews

PROLOGUE

Road Fury

With the recklessness of a 20-year-old who had not yet been scorched by life’s wildfires, Kip Lassiter floored the Tesla X, which whooshed along the narrow road, splashing through potholes barely two feet from a murky Everglades canal.

Kip opened the windows, and a humid blast enveloped him. It had been a great morning. Twenty-five thousand in cash under the backseat. No invoice, no receipt, no howdy-do from the IRS.

Twenty-five grand for four hours’ work!

And it was more fun than work. Taking the risk and getting away with it. What a rush, like being the last person standing in Fortnite.

Slowing down to navigate a buckled stretch of asphalt, Kip heard a discordant sound anfd glanced at his rearview mirror. A metallic blue Maserati, a growling beast, appeared in the mist a hundred yards behind. In seconds, the sports car closed the distance and pulled alongside, exhausts throbbing like symphonic horns. Kip glanced left, but the Maserati’s windows were tinted a bottomless black, the driver a phantom.

Kip sped up and the Maserati kept pace, hanging there.

What? You want to race? That’s cool.

His mind flashed to a video game he had played as a kid. Road Fury. Two cars zipping along a highway filled with hairpin turns. The goal: make the other car crash through a guardrail and fly over a cliff.

Kip punched the accelerator, and the Tesla shot ahead, but the Maserati quickly caught up. Hurtling neck and neck, the two vehicles flew past low-slung gumbo limbo trees that crowded the scarred roadway.

The Maserati’s windows rolled down, and Kip immediately recognized the driver and passenger. Niles and Teague, rich-prick twins from Palm Beach, whose combined IQ wouldn’t equal his.

Okay, so I punked Niles on his SAT exam. But playing chicken at high speed? Seriously?

Niles, or maybe Teague, lunged halfway out the window and shouted, “Keep your mouth shut, Lassiter!”

Oh. That’s it? As if I would talk to the feds.

The Maserati moved closer, claiming the center of the narrow road. Inches apart now, the Tesla’s collision warning bleated like a frightened goat. Kip’s eyes darted to the road ahead. Something moving, just a low silhouette against the glare. Closer now, Kip made out a Florida panther, the color of sun-bleached saw grass.

The Maserati braked hard and fishtailed, sideswiping the Tesla. Kip fought the steering wheel, but his tires skidded off the road and chewed through a patch of swamp lilies. Out of control, the Tesla slid down the embankment and splashed into the canal. The airbag deployed like a boxer punching Kip in the face, pinning him against his seat. Water poured through the open windows. Through the windshield, he saw fish the size of fingernails scattering in the brackish water.

Kip tasted blood and thought he heard the Tesla’s horn wailing, but as the water reached his chest, he realized it was his own scream.

CHAPTER ONE

Just Who Is This Boy?

“Mr. Lassiter! Jake Lassiter!”

Milagros Soto, a court bailiff, called out to me, her voice echoing down the courthouse corridor. More urgent than necessary, I thought, for my being three minutes late for a hearing.

“Hey, Millie. Tell the judge I’ll be right there.”

“Hearing’s cancelled. Why aren’t you answering your phone?” “I turn it off when I’m in the courthouse.”

True enough. When I took the job with the Florida Bar, I started following rules I had always ignored.

“Get over to Jackson Memorial right away,” she said. “It’s your nephew.”

I froze, my chest crushed by dread, as if my lungs had suddenly filled with mud. “What’s hap…?” I couldn’t get the words out.

“I don’t know, Jake. Just get to the trauma center, now.”

Oh, Kip! Just when you’d turned your life around. Now what?

***

Fifteen minutes later, I was double-timing through the maze of Jackson Memorial, as Gloria Sanchez, a deputy administrator, filled me in. “I don’t know why, Jake, but your nephew told me not to contact you. He said you weren’t related.”

“Aw, jeez. I thought the kid had outgrown that.”

I’d known Gloria for twenty years, and she routinely gave me access to the inner sanctum of the trauma center so I could visit clients and witnesses, circumventing the rules. A while back, when her son was a junior at Coral Gables High, I got his marijuana possession charge dismissed. Pro bono, of course.

A sturdy woman in her fifties, Gloria kept pace, quick on her feet. She had probably traveled the circumference of the earth on the rock-hard tile of these chilly corridors.

“When EMS brought him in, I saw the name, ‘Chester Lassiter.’ I remember years ago you showed me photos of the boy. So proud of how smart the little fellow was. You raised Chester, right?”

I nodded. “He goes by ‘Kip.’ My half-sister named him ‘Chester’ after her dad. She was too busy jumping bail to catch the name of the kid’s father.”

Gloria led me into a room where Kip lay on his back, eyes closed, cervical collar around his neck, oxygen clips in his nose, tubes and wires sprouting from his arms and chest. Crimson scratches ran down both cheeks and across his forehead, and two black eyes gave him a raccoon look. A nearby monitor blinked with his respiration, pulse rate, and blood pressure.

In her professional tone tempered with motherly compassion, Gloria told me that Kip was in intensive care because that’s what they do with head trauma. The brain scan appeared normal, but that didn’t rule out a moderate concussion and a whiplash injury. The headline: Kip had driven his car into a canal, and it was difficult to tell how long he’d struggled to get out of the shoulder harness and claw his way through a window. The trauma crew had pumped a small amount of slimy water out of his stomach. No water down his airway thanks to laryngospasms, the throat sealing the trachea. Good thing because water in the lungs can lead to pneumonia.

I walked to the bed and clasped Kip’s hand. Hundreds of times, I’d held him, hugged him, tousled his hair. I’d watched him grow. Taught him values. I’d marveled at his achievements and suffered at his stumbles. And now here he was, as helpless as the day he arrived at my home, my worthless half-sister shoving him out of the car. All his belongings—two filthy changes of clothes— stuffed into a Mickey Mouse backpack that looked as if Pluto had taken a dump in it.

Not a toy. Not a single toy.

He was nine with broomstick limbs, and no one had taught him how to throw or catch a ball, so we invented a game called “Ten.” I’d toss him a rubber ball. If he caught it ten times in a row, he’d get a prize. A milkshake or a comic book or a pack of baseball cards. Soon he could catch it twenty or thirty times without a miss, but we still called the game Ten.

When I’d come home from court, as soon as I walked in, Kip would say, “Let’s play Ten.” And by then, the phrase had taken on a meaning of its own. “Let’s hang out” or “Let’s watch a game” or “Let’s talk.” Our own private code.

Now, I squeezed his hand and whispered, “Hey little guy. I’m here.”

Kip didn’t respond.

“Give him a couple hours for the sedatives to wear off,” Gloria said.

Kip stirred and grunted in his sleep.

“Where exactly did the car go into the water?” I asked, thinking that Miami-Dade had hundreds of miles of waterways, a few not far from the hospital.

“In the Everglades,” Gloria said. “Just this side of Ochopee on a Water District road north of the Trail.”

That stopped me. “Way the hell out there? Who called 911?” Gloria sighed. “I knew you’d ask, so I called the county. Male voice, a little agitated but not hysterical. Wouldn’t leave a name but gave a precise description of the location. GPS coordinates.

They don’t get that very often.”

“Did the county pick up a tower location or the caller’s number?”

She shook her head. “Call was too quick. When your nephew’s awake, I’m sure he’ll tell you everything.”

I wasn’t so sure.

Kip stirred again, his eyes blinking, but he didn’t awaken. “Did the paramedics recover anything from the car?” I asked. “One of them dived in, but just to make sure no one was in

the vehicle. All we’ve got now is what Kip had in his pockets.”

My look asked her a silent question, and her answer was to lead me to a room with two dozen small lockers. She used a master key to open one and handed me a plastic pouch containing a wallet and a passport, both still wet.

“Don’t let anyone see you and put everything back.” Gloria studied me a moment and asked, “Are you okay, Jake? I read in the paper that you’re in that concussion study. I hope everything works out for you.”

I mumbled my thanks, and she smiled at me. “You look like you could still play linebacker.”

“Ha! I still weigh 235, but it’s repositioned itself.”

She said goodbye and left, and I opened the passport and looked at the photo. Issued eleven months ago, a sly smile on Kip’s face.

But what’s this?

Five trips out of the country, five stamps, each with a little green turtle.

Cayman Islands, a British Overseas Territory.

All short trips, two to four days, including one last week.

What the hell!

Kip had never mentioned his travels.

I closed the passport and opened the wallet, which contained nine hundred eighty-seven dollars. Okay, that’s more than I carry around, but so what? Kip had a small business tutoring high school students for the ACT and SAT exams.

I then pulled out a Florida vehicle registration certificate, expecting to find the paperwork for his ten-year-old Toyota Camry. Gloria hadn’t mentioned the make of Kip’s car, and I’d just assumed it was his old clunker. What I found was the registration for a brand-new Tesla SUV, Model X with a personalized license plate, “EZ-1600.”

I drive a 1984 Cadillac Eldorado ragtop, so I’m a little behind the times. But just how the hell did Kip afford this high-tech, space-age vehicle? The Tesla title was folded inside the wallet, too. No lienholder, meaning no loan. He owned the damn thing free and clear.

As for the license plate, I knew the meaning of “1600.” That had been Kip’s score—perfection—on the SAT exam. So much promise. But then came the disaster his freshman year in college. An arrest, expulsion, and a humiliating trip home. And now what? The vehicle registration date was three months ago. I’d seen Kip several times since then. He had an apartment on Brickell, and on his occasional trips to my Coconut Grove house, he always was at the wheel of that old Toyota.

So, the kid who used to tell me everything now secretly buys a

luxury vehicle with cash and goes to pains to make sure I don’t know. I pulled Kip’s driver’s license out of its slot and studied the photo. Sixteen when it had been taken, and he looked about twelve. Straw-blond hair falling into his eyes, a look of innocence, totally lacking in guile. I knew everything about him then. We had no secrets. Was that him in the hospital bed or had space aliens taken over his body? Maybe all parents ponder that question one time or another.

So many threads that lead…where? Why the Cayman Islands?

And what’s with the pricey Tesla at the bottom of a canal? Who called 911?

I replaced the items in the locker and walked down the corridor toward Kip’s room. I would be there when he woke up. And we would talk.

Kip. This is your Uncle Jake. It’s time to get reacquainted. Let’s play Ten.

CHAPTER TWO
The Doctor Is In

Melissa Gold…

Jake’s phone call rocked Dr. Melissa Gold. “Oh my God, Jake!

Is he unconscious?”

“Sedated. It’s probably just a concussion.” He paused a moment. “I guess that’s a little ironic, my saying, ‘just a concussion.’”

Her fiancé, Jake Lassiter, had his own history of head bangers, which may have led to brain damage. Irony there, too. If not for Jake’s traumatic brain injury, they never would have met. As a neuropathologist, she treated him. As a woman, she loved him.

“I’m with a patient,” Melissa said, “but I can be there in an hour.”

“Maybe it’s better if I talk to him alone first. We need to reconnect.”

“Has he strayed that far?”

“All my fault. I’ve let him get away from me.”

Sadness and regret were heavy in his voice. She could practically see his broad shoulders slumping. Jake had given so much of himself so unselfishly, raising Kip after his mother had abandoned him. Jake’s capacity for giving, in fact, had been one of the attractions for her.

They met when she was director of the Center for Neuroscience at UCLA’s medical school. He had taken her deposition in a civil suit, and there was an immediate attraction. He said he liked long, leggy women who were smart and savvy. She usually didn’t like wise-guy lawyers, but there was something solid about him. A strength of character to go with that barrel chest.

In her Left Coast days, she’d dated a number of eligible bachelors. Hollywood business managers in their Zegna suits and Italian silk ties, film agents in their Brioni suits and shiny shirts with no ties, even a couple of actors (what was I thinking?) in torn jeans and five-day beards. The men shared one personality trait: none could pass a mirror without pausing to admire himself. Los Angeles was awash with that kind of man, a Century City Narcissus worshiping his own reflection, waiting for his next project to be greenlit. Sure, a man of towering ego liked having an attractive, professional woman on his arm, but no more than that diamond-encrusted Piaget watch.

Then she met Jake, who was effortlessly natural and without pretensions, responsive to her needs, an excellent listener, and unaware of how rare a prize he was. He was something of a throwback. At a downtown diner, he drank his coffee black with a slice of apple pie, not a cinnamon cappuccino with a passionfruit macaron. In chi-chi South Beach, he remained a brew-and-burger guy in a paté and Chardonnay world.

“Do it, Jake. Talk to him first. You know him best.”

“I thought I did, but what the hell happened?” He sighed into the phone. “When he went off to college, he had such promise.”

“Has such promise. Jake, he’s twenty! Didn’t you ever get into trouble at that age?”

“I was almost kicked out of Penn State for throwing a refrigerator off a fourth-floor balcony. It was a twenty-dollar bet, and I’d already emptied the refrigerator of beer, so I knew I could do it.”

“Just be gentle with Kip. He’s sensitive and…”

“And I’m not?”

“No, you are, but in a different way. You grew up like Huck Finn, barefoot and rowdy. I doubt Kip ever free-dived to steal lobster pots.”

“Only stole the lobsters. I left the pots on the ocean floor.” “I love you, big guy.”

“I love you, too, Doc. Even when you stick needles in my butt.”

She worried about both Lassiter men. Kip was a mystery. Just how did a kid who got a perfect score on the SAT, who never sweated through an academically rigorous private school, get booted out of college his second semester?

But her fiancé’s medical condition had become her primary focus. Once Jake had been diagnosed with a precursor to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the fatal brain disease best known for afflicting former football players, he suggested—politely and sweetly—that they put off the wedding.

“I need a definitive diagnosis,” Jake had said. “I don’t want you to be a young widow.”

When they spoke of marriage now, it was tied to a clean bill of health. Jake was in a study she was running at the University of Miami. Would the early indications of the disease that showed up on his brain scans morph into the full-blown killer that had stricken so many of his contemporaries? Or would they discover a cure for C.T.E. itself, saving him and thousands of others? No one knew.

Their personal relationship was much more joyful. When Chloe, her best girlfriend in Los Angeles, had asked how it was going, Melissa told her, “He gets me. Respects me. It’s so easy, and we mesh so well.”

“And in bed?” Chloe said.

“He takes my breath away.”

“New lab project. Clone him!”

All of which raised a troubling question. When could she tell Jake about the new development in her life? Certainly not today, not until Kip was safely at home. She faced an issue so common these days that it had become a cliché. How could she manage both her relationship and her career? And perhaps the biggest question of all: Would Jake uproot his life for her, as she had done for him?

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