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Authors: James Swain

Grift Sense

BOOK: Grift Sense
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BALLANTINE BOOKS • NEW YORK

For Laura, my epiphany

And God said to Moses,

“Moses, come forth.”

And Moses came fifth,

And it cost God

Two hundred and fifty bucks.

—old gambler's joke

Special thanks to Chris Calhoun at Sterling Lord, my agent Jennifer Hengen, also of Sterling Lord, Emily Heckman, and Shawn Redmond.

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

I
t was February, cold, and Al “Little Hands” Scarpi was pumping iron outside his double-wide on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Raising the bar over his head, he watched a ponytailed kid on a Harley roar up in a swirl of dust. Parting his leather jacket, the kid removed an airline ticket and spun it like a Frisbee, nailing Little Hands squarely in the chest.

“How much you bench?” the kid wanted to know.

“Five hundred, sometimes more,” Little Hands said, wiping his sweaty face with a stained towel. “You lift?”

The kid laughed and revved his hog, as if that was all the muscle he needed.

“You on 'roids or something?” the kid asked.

“Steroids are for pussies,” Little Hands said.

The kid left and Little Hands went inside his trailer. The ticket was for a noon Nevada Air puddle-jumper to Reno, the return for later that night. Printed on the sleeve was the confirmation number of a Hertz rental, a four-wheel-drive Jeep Cherokee. Printed beneath that were cryptic instructions. Cal-Neva Lodge—ask for Benny.

Inside the sleeve was money, five grand in thousand-dollar bills. Little Hands clutched it while thinking about the flight his employer had booked him on. It would be filled with businessmen. Then he imagined himself standing on line at the Hertz counter. More businessmen. Shredding the plane ticket, he went outside and tossed the pieces into the wind.

         

The drive to Reno took eight hours, another hour to navigate the treacherous mountain roads to Lake Tahoe. A light snow had dusted the highway, and he did thirty most of the way. It was a different world up here, the air thin and difficult to breathe, and a pounding headache soon filled his skull.

The Cal-Neva Lodge straddled the state line, which was how it got its name. It was dark when Little Hands parked at a casino called Lucky Lil's, then jogged down the road to his destination, his broad muscular back lit up by oncoming headlights.

He entered the Cal-Neva to the happy sounds of a slot machine paying a jackpot. At the front desk, he learned Benny was on break. Going outside, he found his contact having a smoke by the tennis courts. To his surprise, Benny was a she.

“My mother wanted a boy,” Benny explained, blowing a smoke ring that hung eerily in the frigid air. “Ain't you cold?”

Little Hands shook his head no.

“Guess all that muscle keeps you real toasty, huh?”

Benny winked, coming on to him, and Little Hands got up close and breathed in her face. She swallowed hard. “Hey, I was just kidding, okay? Don't act so crazy. If you don't know it, this job is going to make you famous.”

“Quit blowing me,” he said.

“The guy in Bungalow ten—the guy you're going to whack. You know who he is?”

When Little Hands said no, Benny smartly said, “It's Sonny Fontana, that's who, big boy.”

Little Hands didn't believe her. Sonny Fontana was the poster boy of professional hustlers and forever banned from stepping foot in Nevada. He'd ripped off every major casino and never done time. The notion that he'd be hiding out in this crummy dump was too much for Little Hands to swallow. Sonny Fontana, his ass.

Sensing his doubts, Benny said, “Don't you get it? The bungalows are technically in California. Nobody can touch Fontana as long as he doesn't cross the state line.” Producing a newspaper from her pocket, she said, “See for yourself.”

Little Hands held the paper up to the moonlight. It was a photograph of Sonny Fontana taken outside a federal courthouse in Carson City several years ago. Jet-black hair, bushy eyebrows, big Roman nose. A real street guinea.

“You positive this guy's in Bungalow ten?”

“Sure am.” Benny stamped out her butt. “Enjoy your fifteen minutes of fame.”

“Right,” he grunted.

Beneath a smiling half-moon, Little Hands crossed the grounds. Bungalow ten was surrounded by fir trees. He stuck his face in a side window. A guy in his birthday suit stood inside a tiny kitchenette. Loud music was playing on the radio and an open pizza box sat on the kitchen table. In profile, the guy looked like Fontana, but so did a lot of guys. He took a bottle of vodka from the freezer and left the room.

Circling the bungalow, Little Hands found a rear window with light streaming out and resumed watching. Inside, a woman with a shaved crotch sat upright on a four-poster bed while the naked guy refilled her tumbler. Licking her lips, the woman said, “Okay Sonny, let's see if you've got any more bullets in that thing.”

Little Hands gripped the windowsill. So it really was him. He'd always dreamed of whacking a big shot and making a name for himself. He watched Fontana mount the woman from behind. They went at it like a couple of porno stars. Just as he was about to climax, Fontana grabbed a cream-colored Stetson off a poster and stuck it on his head. Slapping the woman's buttocks, he said, “Let's cross the finish line together, honey!”

Little Hands backed away from the window. Standing in the lonely gathering of trees, he fought back the urge to cry. At the tender age of six, he'd caught his mother screwing a fireman wearing a red helmet. His mother had picked the fireman up in a bar where he'd come after battling a four-alarm blaze. Seeing her son's stricken face, his mother had burst into tears; the fireman just kept screwing. With his little hands, Little Hands had beaten on the fireman, to no avail.

Little Hands went around to the front of the bungalow. He'd thought about the fireman every day since. And his red hat. Like his mother wasn't worth hanging around for. The anger had been building inside of him for a long time.

He knocked on the front door. From within, he heard feet shuffling. A light on the porch came on. He could feel someone watching him through the peephole.

“Hotel security,” he said.

The door opened and Fontana stuck his head out. He still wore the Stetson, only now it was perched rakishly to one side. Reeking of vodka, he said, “Yeah, what's the problem?”

Little Hands stared at him, just to be sure. It was the same guy from the newspaper article; there was no doubt in his mind. He'd killed many men in his life, but this one was going to be special. Grabbing Fontana by the throat, Little Hands closed the door on his head.

“This is for Mom,” he said.

Six Months Later

1

E
verybody cheated, at least everybody Tony Valentine had ever known. They cheated on their income taxes, on their spouses, on the phone and cable company, and if they had balls, in a Friday-night poker game or on the golf course. Everybody did it at least once; it was human nature, and a forgivable sin. But those who developed a taste for it, they were the problem.

And there were a lot of them. The number of professional con artists and hustlers working in the United States was at epidemic levels, and legalized gambling was to blame. With thirty-eight states having legalized wagering in one form or another, cheating was as rampant as it was during the early days of the Wild West. There was no lottery that could not be scammed, no slot or video poker machine that couldn't be rigged, no casino dealer who couldn't be compromised. The cheaters made sure of that; they were human scum, lower than any common thief or hoodlum, and Valentine had never regretted putting a single one behind bars until one fateful August day that made him think twice about the work that he did.

The day had started routinely enough. Up at eight, he'd eaten a bowl of Special K while reading the box scores; taken the usual shit, shower, shave; then hit the front porch of his Palm Harbor home with his second cup of joe. Sitting in a rocker beneath the cool breeze of an overhead fan, he supposed he looked like every other retired fart in his neighborhood, the only difference being that he was far from retired.

“You're late,” he groused to the FedEx driver at nine-thirty. Taking the clipboard from the driver's outstretched hand, he hastily scribbled his name.

“Got stuck behind a funeral procession,” the freckle-faced driver explained, exchanging the clipboard for a padded envelope. “It's that time of year. Got to run. Stay healthy, Mr. Valentine.”

Valentine froze in the doorway as the orange, white, and purple van sped away. What was the driver insinuating—that old people died in bunches like leaves falling off a tree? Florida, he'd discovered on retirement, had two things in great abundance: nice weather and lots of mighty stupid people.

The envelope was from the Acropolis Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, and he tore it open, remembering his chat the day before with a moronic pit boss named Wily. A player had taken the Acropolis for fifty grand and Wily had begged Valentine to look at the surveillance tape to see if the guy was cheating. He'd sounded desperate, so Valentine had said yes.

The envelope held a video cassette, a check, and a note. Most pit bosses had never graduated high school, and Wily's scrawl was barely legible. From what Valentine could decipher, Wily thought the dealer was involved. Pit bosses always thought that, and he tossed the note into the trash.

Popping the video into the VCR, Valentine settled into his La-Z-Boy. Black-and-white images materialized on his thirty-six-inch Sony. A fuzzy young lady was dealing blackjack to an equally fuzzy man. The Acropolis was one of the oldest joints in Las Vegas and needed to get some updated surveillance equipment or risk losing its license. He fiddled with the tint control and the picture gradually took shape.

Watching surveillance videos was a unique experience. The cameras filtered twice as much light as the human eye, and as a result hairpieces looked like rugs, cheap suits took on zebra stripes, and women wearing red dresses became naked. It was like entering the Twilight Zone.

Soon Valentine found himself yawning. Normally, the tapes he viewed were action-packed and filled with plenty of people. That was how most casino scams worked, with someone causing a distraction while three or four members of a “mob” did the dirty work. This tape was different. One guy, playing alone at a blackjack table, was winning hand after hand. Valentine studied his play, then the sweet-looking blonde doing the dealing. Everything looked legit, except how the guy seemed to know exactly when to take a hit and when to stand.

Twenty minutes later, Valentine still had no idea what was going on. If he hadn't known better, he would have thought someone was putting him on.
No one on the planet is that good.
Stopping the VCR, he retrieved Wily's note from the trash. The pit boss had written
Dealer flashing?
and underlined it. Valentine knew when a dealer was flashing her hole card to a player, and the blonde on the video wasn't doing it. Wily was dead wrong.

But that didn't mean something crooked wasn't going down. The guy on the video was winning way too much. Grabbing a pad and pencil from his desk, Valentine knelt on the floor so he was a foot from his TV, then hit Start on the VCR.

“Okay, mister,” he said as the tape started to roll, “let's see what you've got.”

         

The guy had plenty—so much so that Valentine soon nicknamed him Slick.

For sixty minutes, he kept a record of Slick's play, noting every time he won, lost, or played to a draw with the house. Slick's strategy was erratic, at times plain dumb, yet he won way more than average. The sixty-four-thousand-dollar question was, how much over average? A few percentage points could be attributed to luck; anything over that meant darker forces were at work.

When Slick had played one hundred hands, Valentine added up the
X
's beneath his three columns: fifty-eight hands won, thirty lost, twelve tied. Nearly a two-thirds winning percentage. That was unreal.

He went to his desk and booted up his PC. It was time to do the math. A program called Blackjack Master filled the blue screen. Blackjack Master simulated the game of blackjack with any strategy a person chose to play. Once the strategy was entered, the program would play it for one million hands, then spit out the odds. Several updated versions had come out over the years, but Valentine had stayed loyal to the original. So what if it was slow? It got the job done, and that was all he wanted from a computer.

Slick liked to hit on seventeens when the dealer was showing a ten, and Valentine decided to run it as a separate strategy, just to see where it got him.

Blackjack Master Simulation

A.                  
Set number of hands (1,000,000)

B.                  
Clear statistics

C.                  
Fix player total (17)

D.                  
Fix player's first card (10)

E.                  
Fix dealer up card (10)

F.                  
Begin/continue simulation

G.                  
Display statistics by hand type

H.
                  Display statistics by adjusted count

I.                  
Display card deal statistics

J.                  
Print statistics

K.                  
Write statistics to disk

L.                  
Simulation log file

M.                  
Return to first menu

Done, he hit Enter, then listened to his hard drive whir. A minute later, Blackjack Master made its opinion known.                                                      

It was a bad strategy, producing worse odds than if Slick had stayed pat, and not drawn a card. His eyes shifted to the numbers on his pad. According to his less-than-scientific calculations, Slick had won seventy percent of his hands in this situation.

Unreal.

The other strategies played out the same. Blackjack Master gave them the thumbs-down, yet Slick managed an impossibly high winning percentage. You had to be smoking something to believe that a player could maintain these percentages over the course of several hours' play. Which meant Wily was right about one thing. Slick was definitely cheating. The question was, how?

         

Valentine ate lunch the same time every day, standing over the kitchen sink wolfing down a sandwich while gazing at his postage stamp of a backyard. Sometimes he listened to the radio, big bands on 106.3, but not often.

Tony,
he could hear his wife say,
sit down. It's bad for your digestion to stand while you eat.

Old habits die hard,
he'd say.
You walk a beat, certain things stay with you.

You haven't walked a beat since being promoted to detective,
she'd reply, the lines coming out like a
Honeymooners
skit.
That was twenty-five years ago.

Twenty-five years?
he'd exclaim, shaking his head in wonder.
God, it feels like yesterday.

         

He sipped a Diet Coke while thinking about his conversation with Wily. The pit boss had called Slick a nut; now he knew why. Slick hadn't just cheated the Acropolis, he'd rubbed everyone's face in it. No hustler with half an ounce of common sense ever did that. It just wasn't healthy.

But there was another dynamic that was equally disturbing. Even if Wily didn't know what Slick was doing, he still should have barred him once his winnings started to mount. Nevada casinos were private clubs that reserved the right to prohibit anyone from playing. It wasn't commonly done, but this would have been a smart time to exercise the option.

Only Wily hadn't. He'd let the casino's losses get out of hand, which meant either he was a total jackass or he thought Slick was on a lucky streak that would eventually run its course, and the Acropolis would win its money back.

Suddenly the soda didn't taste so good. Something was wrong with this picture. Then it hit him like an anvil: Professional hustlers were like nuns when it came to exposing themselves. Slick had broken a cardinal rule of his own profession.

Why?

Mabel Struck materialized on his back stoop, looking tropically resplendent in her orange polyester slacks and high-wattage parrot shirt. Seeing the Tupperware container between her liver-spotted hands, Valentine realized that, bless her heart, she'd brought him dinner.

“Anybody home?” she said, nose pressed to the glass. “Hey, Tony, I can see the TV on. You sleeping on the job again? Wake up, sonny boy.”

He unlocked the back door. “Come on in, Mabel.”

“Don't tell me you were standing there the whole time,” she said, entering his kitchen.

“Afraid I was.”

“I can't see a thing without my glasses anymore,” she said, jabbing him in the gut with the container. “You know, this old-age thing really sucks.”

“It beats the alternative. I was just having lunch. Want a ham-and-Swiss?”

“No thanks. You sound stressed.” Fishing her glasses from her pocket, Mabel fitted them on her nose and gave him the once-over. “You
look
stressed. You feeling okay, young man?”

“Great,” he said without enthusiasm. After Lois had passed away, Mabel had started leaving hot meals on his doorstep, country-fried steak and mashed potatoes or fried chicken and cornbread. It was food for the soul, and he'd eaten every bite, even when he'd had no appetite. He took the container and put it on the top shelf of his refrigerator. It was heavy. He said, “Lasagna? You shouldn't have.”

“It's no bother, really. What's eating you?”

“I'm having a problem figuring something out.”

“Can I help?”

“Sure. Have a seat while I finish lunch.”

Mabel took her usual spot at the kitchen table. A sixty-four-year-old retired AT&T operator from Cincinnati, she'd raised two children by herself and had come to Florida when they'd tried to move back in. She despised retirement and had embarked on a new career that brought her a surprising amount of notoriety.

“Know anything about blackjack?” he inquired.

“Not really. But I used to play bridge.”

“Competitively?”

“Yes, tournament level.”

“Ever catch an opponent signaling cards to a partner?”

“Well, now that you mention it, yes. Back in 1968 in a tournament in Boise, I saw Ethel Bell signal her husband that she had five trump cards. I called the referee immediately.”

“That's enough qualification for me,” Valentine said. “I'd like you to look at a videotape a casino sent me.”

“Sure,” Mabel said, “but before we do that, I want you to critique my newest ad. I think it's ready.”

From her purse Mabel removed a piece of manila stationery and slid it across the table. Her anonymous classifieds had been running in the
St. Petersburg Times
for over a year and had turned her into a minor celebrity. Newspaper editorials now quoted her witticisms and local politicos used her jokes in their long-winded speeches. She had become a voice, a responsibility she did not take lightly.

“Be honest,” she told him.

Depressed, overweight, domineering older woman, slight drinking problem, hyper, on food stamps and oxygen. Would like to meet a cute young professional man with big abs and a foreign sports car, low mileage. Please send current résumé, blood test results, and nude photo for a platonic relationship.

“Haw, haw, haw,” Valentine brayed, holding his sides. To think that his sweet-faced neighbor possessed this kind of wit was beyond him.

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