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Sucker Bet

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Sucker Bet

  Sucker Bet

  James Swain

  Ballantine Books • New York


  Title Page




  The Turn of a Card

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  Chapter 40

  Chapter 41

  Chapter 42

  Chapter 43

  Chapter 44

  Chapter 45

  Chapter 46

  Chapter 47

  About the Author

  Other Books by Jim Swain


  For Thomas Swain

  It’s morally wrong to allow suckers to keep their money.


  Special thanks to Deborah Redmond,

  Shawn Redmond, and my wife, Laura


  The mark’s name was Nigel Moon.

  Jack Lightfoot recognized Moon the moment he stepped into the Micanopy Indian reservation casino. Back in the eighties, Moon had played drums for an English rock band called One-Eyed Pig, his ransacking of hotel rooms as well-publicized as his manic solos. Unlike the other band members, who’d fried their brains on drugs and booze, Moon had opened a chain of popular hamburger joints that now stretched across two continents.

  As Moon crossed the casino, Jack eyed the delicious redhead on his arm. She was a plant, or what his partner Rico called a raggle. “The raggle will convince Moon to come to your casino,” Rico had explained the day before, “and try his luck at blackjack. She’ll bring him to your table. The rest is up to you.”

  She looked familiar. Jack frequented Fort Lauderdale’s many adult clubs and often picked up free magazines filled with ads of local prostitutes. The raggle was a hooker named Candy Hart. Her ad said she was on call twenty-four hours a day, Visa and MasterCard accepted.

  “Good evening,” Jack said as they sat down at his empty table.

  Moon reeked of beer. He was pushing fifty, unshaven, his gray hair pulled back in a pigtail like a matador’s coleta. He removed a monster wad from his pocket and dropped it on the table. All hundreds.

  “Table limit is ten dollars,” Jack informed him.

  Moon made a face. Candy touched Moon’s arm.

  “You can’t bet more than ten dollars a hand,” she said sweetly. “All of the table games have limits.”

  Moon drew back in his chair. “Ten bloody dollars? What kind of toilet have you brought me to, my dear? I can get a game of dominos with a bunch of old Jews on Miami Beach with higher stakes than that.”

  Candy dug her fingernails into Moon’s arm. “You promised me, remember?”

  “I did?”

  “In the car.”

  Moon smiled wickedly. “Oh, yes. A moment of weakness, I suppose.”

  “Shhhh,” she said, glancing Jack’s way.

  Moon patted her hand reassuringly. “A promise is a promise.”

  Moon slid five hundred dollars Jack’s way. Jack cut up his chips. During a stretch in prison, Jack heard One-Eyed Pig’s music blasting through the cell block at all hours, and he knew many of the lyrics by heart.

  Jack slid the chips across the table. Moon put ten dollars into each of the seven betting circles on the felt. Jack played a two-deck game, handheld. He shuffled the cards and offered them to be cut.

  “Count them,” Moon said.

  “Excuse me?” Jack said.

  “I want you to count the cards,” Moon demanded.

  Jack brought the pit boss over, and Moon repeated himself again.

  “Okay,” the pit boss said.

  Jack started to count the cards onto the table.

  “Faceup,” Moon barked.

  “Excuse me?” Jack said.

  “You heard me.”

  Jack looked to the pit boss for help.

  “Okay,” the pit boss said.

  Jack turned the two decks faceup. Then he counted them on the table.

  “What are you doing?” Candy asked.

  “Making sure they’re all there,” Moon said, watching intently. “I ran up against a dealer in Puerto Rico playing with a short deck and lost my bloody shirt.”

  Jack finished counting. One hundred and four cards. Satisfied, Moon leaned back into his chair.

  “A short dick?” Candy said, giggling.

  “Short deck. It’s where the dealer purposely removes a number of high-valued cards. It gives the house an unbeatable edge.”

  “And you figured that out,” she said.

  “Yes, my dear, I figured it out.”

  Jack saw Candy’s hand slip beneath the table and into Moon’s lap. Moon’s face lit up like a lantern. “You’re so smart,” she cooed.

  Jack reshuffled the cards. For Moon to have figured out that a dealer was playing with a short deck meant that Moon was an experienced card-counter. Card-counters were instinctively observant, and Jack realized that he was going to have to be especially careful tonight, or risk blowing their scam before it ever got off the ground. He slid the two decks in front of Moon, who cut them with a plastic cut card.

  “Good luck,” Jack said.

  Then he started to deal.

  Jack Lightfoot was not your typical card mechanic.

  Born on the Navajo Indian reservation in New Mexico, he’d been in trouble almost from the time he’d started walking. At seventeen, he’d gone to federal prison for a string of convenience store robberies and spent the next six years doing hard time.

  The prison was filled with gangs. Jack had gravitated to a Mexican gang and hung out in their cell block. The Mexicans were heavy gamblers and often played cards all day long. They liked different games—seven-card stud, Omaha, razzle-dazzle, Texas hold ’em. Each game had its subtleties, but the game Jack fell in love with was blackjack. And whenever it was Jack’s turn to deal, blackjack was the game he chose.

  Dealing blackjack gave Jack an edge over the other players. He’d worked it out and figured it was slightly less than 2 percent. It was offset by the fact that if he lost a round, he had to pay off the other players, and that could be devastating to his bankroll. But if he won, the other players had to pay him. Blackjack was the game with the greatest risk but also the greatest reward.

  One night, Jack had lain on his cot, thinking. He’d seen a lot of cheating among the Mexicans. They marked cards with shoe polish or palmed out a pair before a hand began. It occurred to him that if he was going to cheat, wouldn’t blackjack be the game to do it in?

  He thought about it for months. The Mexicans were suspicious guys, and manipulating the cards was out of the question. But instead of manipulating the cards, why not manipulate the other players into making bad decisions? Guys did it in poker all the time. It was called bluffing.

/>   Why not blackjack?

  One night, one of the Mexicans gave Jack a magic mushroom. Jack ate it, then went to bed. When he woke up a few hours later, he was screaming, his body temperature a hundred and six.

  While Jack was strapped to a bed in the prison infirmary for two days, his brain turned itself inside out. When he finally came out of it, a single thought filled his head.

  With the turn of a single card, he could change the odds at blackjack.

  With the turn of a single card, he could force other players into making bad decisions.

  With the turn of a single card, he could master a game that had no masters.

  One card, that was all it took.

  And all Jack had to do was turn it over.

  He howled so hard, they kept him strapped to the bed for an extra day.

  Nigel Moon’s stack of chips soon resembled a small castle. A crowd of gaping tourists had assembled behind the table to watch the carnage. The Brit cast a disparaging look over his shoulder, like he was pissed off by all the attention.

  “You’ve got groupies,” Candy said.

  Moon’s eyes danced behind his sour expression. He sipped his martini, trying to act nonchalant. Candy stared at him dreamily.

  “Congratulations, sir,” Jack said, his lines committed to memory. “You just broke the house record.”

  Moon fished the olive out of his martini glass. “And what record is that, my good man?”

  “No one has ever won eighty-four hands before,” Jack informed him.

  The Brit sat up stiffly, basking in the moment. “Is that how many I’ve won?”

  “Eighty-four, yes, sir.”

  “And no one’s ever done that before.”

  “Not in a row, no, sir.”

  “So I’m the champ?”

  “Yes, sir, you’re the champ.”

  Moon snapped his fingers, and a cocktail waitress came scurrying over.

  “Drinks for everyone,” he said benevolently.

  The crowd gave him a round of applause. Candy brought her mouth up to Moon’s ear and whispered something dirty. Moon’s eyes danced with possibilities.

  Jack gathered up the cards. He’d dealt winning hands to players before, and the transformation was always fun to watch. Weak men turned brave, the shy outspoken. It changed them, and it changed how others saw them. And all because of the turn of a single card.

  “A question,” Moon said.

  Jack waited expectantly.

  “Is there a limit on tipping?”


  “I know there’s a limit on betting,” Moon said. “Is there a limit on tipping?”

  “Not that I’m aware of,” Jack said.

  Moon shoved half his winnings Jack’s way. Standing, he leaned over the table and breathed his martini onto Jack’s face. “Do something wicked tonight. On me.”

  “Yes, sir,” Jack replied.

  Jack’s shift ended at midnight.

  He changed out of his dealer’s clothes into jeans and a sports shirt and drifted outside through the back door. Standing in the parking lot were his other dealer buddies. They were planning an excursion to the Cheetah in Fort Lauderdale to gape at naked college girls. Jack told them he had plans and begged off. His buddies got into their cars and left.

  Jack lit a cigarette. A full moon had cast a creamy patina across the macadam. The casino backed onto a lake, and across its surface floated a dozen pairs of greenish eyes. The Micanopy reservation was in the Everglades, and alligators were always hanging around, eyeing you like a meal.

  He smoked his cigarette down to a stub while thinking about the raggle. She had melted when Moon had started winning, and Jack had watched her leave the casino draped to his side. Was she falling for him? He sure hoped not.

  A black limo pulled into the lot. Behind the wheel sat Rico’s driver, a spooky Cuban guy named Splinters. The limo pulled up and the back door popped open. Rico Blanco sat in back, jabbering on his cell phone.

  Jack got in.

  “South Beach,” Rico told his driver.

  The limo glided out of the lot. Rico was a New Yorker and liked to boast that he was the only member of John Gotti’s crime family currently not in jail. Tonight he wore a designer tux with a red bow tie and looked like a million bucks. Rico put his hand over the phone’s mouthpiece. “I hear you were a star tonight.”

  “Who told you that?”

  “Candy,” Rico said. “She called me a little while ago.”

  “It went great.”

  “Let me ask you something. You think she’s in love with him?”

  Jack nodded.

  “Damn hookers,” Rico said. “They smell money, their brains melt. Every time I use one, know what I tell them?”

  Jack had no idea what Rico told them. But Rico had a line for everybody, and if you hung around him long enough, you got to hear it. Jack opened the minibar and helped himself to a beer. “No, what do you tell them?”

  “I tell them, honey, you know it’s time to quit the business when you start coming with the customers. Think any of them listen?”

  “No,” Jack said.

  “Fucking-a they don’t,” Rico said. Taking his hand away from the mouthpiece, he said, “Yeah, Victor, I’m still here. No, Victor, I’m not driving while I’m talking on the phone; I’ve got someone to drive for me.” Rico looked at Jack and rolled his eyes. Victor was the senior partner in the operation and often treated Rico like a kid. “Yeah, Victor. I’ll see you tomorrow. Nine sharp. Brunch at the Breakers. Bye.” He killed the power. “So where were we?”

  “Hookers,” Jack said.

  “Speaking of which, I’ve got some girls lined up you’re going to love.”

  “They like Indians?”

  “They like who I tell them to like,” Rico said. He took a Heineken out of a holder and clinked it against Jack’s bottle. “To the best blackjack cheat in the world.”

  Only one road led back to civilization, and it was long and very dark. The limo jumped into the air as it hit a bump in the road, then bounced hard on the macadam.

  “What the hell you doing?” Rico yelled.

  “Sorry,” Splinters said, not sounding sorry at all.

  Jack looked at his shirt. Beer had jumped out of the bottle and soaked it. He swore under his breath. Rico laughed like it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen.

  “Jack’s all wet,” Rico said with mock indignation. “Apologize.”

  “Sorry,” Splinters said.

  Jack swallowed hard. “No problem.”

  “You got a towel up there?” Rico said. “I got some on me, too, for Christ’s sake.”

  A handkerchief flew into the backseat. Rico plucked it out of the air and balled it up. He pressed it against the wet spot on his knee, then leaned forward and pressed the handkerchief against Jack’s shirt. Jack pulled back, and Rico’s eyes grew wide. Then his hand turned into a rock-hard fist.

  “You fucking bastard!” Rico roared.

  At seven the next morning, Chief Running Bear, leader of the Micanopy nation, sat in his double-wide trailer a hundred yards behind the casino, staring at a pair of identical TV sets. Two hours earlier, a phone call had awoken him from a deep sleep, and now he rubbed his eyes tiredly while staring at the dueling images.

  On one TV, a casino surveillance film showed an employee named Jack Lightfoot dealing blackjack. A player at Lightfoot’s table had won eighty-four hands in a row, a feat that Running Bear knew was statistically impossible. The player had never touched the cards, ruling out sleight of hand. There was only one logical explanation: Lightfoot had rigged the game.

  On the other TV, a second surveillance film showed Lightfoot standing in the casino parking lot, smoking a cigarette.

  Before running the tapes, Running Bear had gone through Lightfoot’s personnel file. He was a Navajo and had come to work for the Micanopys with a glowing reference from Bill Higgins, another Navajo, who happened to run the Nevada Gaming Control Board. Indians did not lie t
o other Indians, and Running Bear could remember Higgins’s words as if it were yesterday.

  “Jack won’t let you down,” Higgins had said.

  Running Bear shook his head. Jack Lightfoot had let him down. He was a cheat, and a damn good one. Bill Higgins had once bragged to Running Bear that he knew every goddamned cheater in the country. So why hadn’t he known about this one?

  On the second TV a stretch limo appeared. Running Bear leaned forward to stare. The passenger door opened. Sitting in back was an Italian with wavy hair and a mustache. Running Bear found most white men identical, their faces as bland as pudding. Italians were particularly annoying. The men all wore mustaches, or snot-catchers as Indians called them. This one looked like a gangster.

  Running Bear stopped the tapes. Sipping his coffee, he listened to the air conditioner outside his window. His casino had been ripped off by a dealer recommended by the most respected gaming official in the country. And that dealer was working with a mobster. It doesn’t get any worse than this, he thought.

  The door opened. The casino’s head of security, Harry Smooth Stone, stepped in. He was out of breath.

  “More problems,” Smooth Stone said.

  Running Bear pushed himself out of his chair. Thirty years wrestling alligators had put arthritis in every joint in his body, and he grimaced as his bones sang their painful song. Had he disgraced a dead ancestor recently and not realized it? There had to be some reason for this sudden spate of bad luck.

  They drove Smooth Stone’s Jeep across the casino parking lot. Jumping a concrete median, they went down a narrow dirt road through thick mangroves that led into the heart of the Everglades. For centuries, the Micanopys had lived in harmony with the alligators, panthers, and bears that called this land home, and had been rewarded in ways that few humans could appreciate.

  Ten minutes later, Smooth Stone pulled into a clearing and parked beside a large pool of water. Running Bear knew the spot well; in the spring, alligators came here to mate and, later, raise their young. A half-dozen tribe members with fishing poles stood by the water’s edge, looking scared.

  Running Bear got out of the Jeep. The men stepped aside, revealing a body lying facedown in the water. It was a man, and he’d been shot once in the head. His left forearm had been chewed off, as had both his feet. Someone had hooked him by the collar. Running Bear said, “Flip him over.”

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