Dedicated to my wife, Ann, who is always willing to take
a gamble with me, and to our kids – Marty, Pat, Nick,
Ken, and Helen – who are always our biggest payoff.
"Luck is for losers."
I hated it when Bill said that. I hated the tone, the words, the way it made me feel.
"Quiet," I said. "I can't think with you jabbering at me like that."
I ran a hand over my dark, shaggy curls and stared down at the cards before me. I ignored the five laid out face-up in the middle of the table. I couldn't do anything about them. The two hole cards face-down in front of me worried me though, and I hadn't even looked at them.
Bill slapped a hand on the polished wood. The cards jumped off the table a fraction of an inch and settled right back down where they'd been. Nothing about them changed a bit.
"You think it's hard to concentrate here, in a hotel room?" Bill sneered at me. "Just imagine how much worse it's going to be on the floor in a real game with real money on the table."
"We won't be playing for chips?"
"Chips are money, Jackson," he said. "That's one of
the tricks the casinos play on you to keep you coming back. Losing a stack of black chips doesn't seem like that big a deal. But that stack's worth all your textbooks for the year."
I glared at Bill now. He stared back at me with his blue eyes under his dark, close-cut hair. Everything about him was razor-sharp, from the edges of his sideburns to the creases in his khakis. He was only nineteen, a few months older than me, but he always seemed far more sophisticated.
"You're not helping, brother," I said. I turned and reached for my laptop.
Bill leaned over the table. "What are you doing? That can't help you."
I launched my video chat program. "I'm going to call Ultman."
Bill slammed the laptop shut, almost pinching my fingers. "No. What's the professor going to say?" He put on his best Indian accent. "'I told you not to do anything foolish, Mr Wisdom'? 'Bring him back to Ann Arbor, Mr Chancey'?" He gagged. "Are you going to listen to that?"
I rubbed my eyes and sighed. "This is crazy," I said. "I can't believe I let you talk me into this."
Bill pulled the laptop away and tossed it on one of the beds. I glanced out past it to the view out of the room's wide, tinted window, which was curved to fit inside the casino's outer wall. The sun had fallen behind the mountains to the west, turning the sky into bands of bright orange at the horizon, fading to star-speckled blue-black high above.
I'd never seen mountains before this morning's flight from Detroit Metro to McCarran. The guidebook on my smartphone called the range hunkered off to the west of Las Vegas the Spring Mountains. They looked close enough to walk to, although I knew it would take me at least a good day's hike just to reach their feet.
"It's a good plan," said Bill. "It's going to work. How can it not work?"
I smirked at him. "You want a list? I've seen enough movies. We're going to screw this up, and a couple gorillas in dark suits and glasses will take us into a back room and beat us half to death then offer us a free ride to the airport."
Bill groaned. "You're always so negative. You have to think positive. We're not going to screw this up."
"I'm positive we will."
Bill made a fist. "Thinking like that will get us killed."
I put up my hands and walked to the window. When we'd checked in three hours ago, the hotel tower had faced the Strip. I wondered how long it would take for it to make a complete spin.
"Forget it then," I said. "It's not worth it. It's just money."
"Just money," he said. "So you're rich? Your grandma doesn't have to work to send you to school? That out-of-state tuition isn't taking a bit out of her retirement fund?"
I winced. Bill knew how poor I was, especially compared to him. I felt guilty every day about taking my grandma's money, but she wouldn't let me not. "A man's nothing without an education," she'd told me. "Just see how your daddy and granddaddy turned out. We ain't gonna have that from you."
Bill just wouldn't let up though. "How's that scholarship working out for you?"
I turned and scowled at him. He knew. "I'd be doing fine."
"If what?" he said. He stuck out his chest, daring me to say it.
"Forget it. I ain't going for it."
He pumped his fist at me in frustration. "Magic isn't the problem, Jackson. It's the solution."
"It's stealing. It ain't right."
"So now you got morals." He rubbed his forehead. "You didn't seem to mind taking money from those frat boys last week."
I knew he was going to bring that up. "They had it coming. Besides, it was just beer money. They could afford it."
Bill tossed up his arms. "And these casinos can't? Have you looked at this place? It's a garden in a desert!"
He walked over to the wardrobe, opened it up, and started rummaging through it. "Look at this hotel," he said. "Revolutions is fifty stories tall, and the whole building spins on an axis.
"Check out the Luxor. That light that spears out of the top of the pyramid? You can see that from space. The Stratosphere is over a thousand feet tall, and it has rides on top of it. The Mirage has a working volcano sitting out in front of it.
"Do you have any idea about the kind of engineering that goes into building something like that? Do you know what it costs to keep it all going?"
"A hell of a lot more than we could ever take out of here in a single night. The profits on a place like this are astronomical. And half of them go to the mob."
"You believe that, you've been watching too much TV."
"Think what you like, Jackson," he said. "You could take enough money from these people to pay for your entire education, and they wouldn't notice it."
I knew he was right, but I shook my head anyway. "That ain't the point. I can't do it anyhow. It – it just doesn't want to work."
"You can do it," Bill said. "You've done it before. You're just psyching yourself out."
He pulled a pistol from his duffel bag.
"What the hell are you doing with that?" I took a step back and bumped into the tempered glass behind me. We were thirty-three stories up in a rotating building, and the windows here were all sealed up solid.
"It's insurance." Bill flipped out the pistol's empty cylinder with practiced ease, like a gunslinger from the early days of this lawless town. He slipped a single bullet into it, slapped it back home and gave it a spin.
"Against what? The bellboy?"
"All sorts of things." He pointed the gun at me. "Right now, it's against friends cutting their own throats."
"Put the gun down, Bill," I said. "It ain't funny."
"I'm not joking." He cocked the pistol. "Change the cards."
"How the hell did you get that through the airport?" I glanced around for some way to escape. Only one door led out of the room, and Bill stood between me and it.
"I'm a magician, Jackson." Bill snorted. "How do you think I did it?"
He pulled the trigger, and my heart nearly stopped. The hammer clicked on an empty chamber.
"Put it away, brother." I held my hands over my chest. "Someone's going to get hurt."
He cocked the pistol again. "Just change the cards. Then I put it away."
I walked back to the table. "How did you get your hands on a gun?" I asked. "Tell me you haven't had that stashed in our dorm room all year."
"I'm from Detroit," he said, like that explained everything.
"I ate in your family's mansion for Thanksgiving, Bill. Grosse Pointe Woods ain't hardly the hood."
"Just change the cards."
I looked down at the table. The cards were still there, mocking me: the Three, Six, and Jack of Clubs, the Queen of Diamonds, and the Ace of Spades.
I put a hand on the top of my two pocket cards, and I stared at their backs so hard I thought I might burn a hole straight through them.
"Feel anything?" asked Bill.
"I don't always. Sometimes it just happens."
He grinned as he shook his head. "Too funny. For me, it's like a synapse bursts in my brain, like a little orgasm."
"That what I hear you doing in the bathroom at night? Playing with your wand, trying to make the mojo happen?"
He pulled the trigger.
The click made me jump about a foot. "Knock that the hell off!" I said.
"Just shut up and change the damned cards!"
I reached down and turned them over, exposing the Two of Hearts and the Two of Diamonds.
Bill clucked his tongue at me. "A pair of deuces? That's the best hand you can come up with?"
"That's not what I was trying for."
"I know," he said. He pulled the trigger again.
I tried not to flinch – I didn't want to give him the satisfaction – but I just couldn't help it.
"That's half the chambers," Bill said. "And you say you're not lucky." He pulled back the hammer. "Three more tries."
I wondered if I could catch the bullet. The great stage magicians had done it for decades, ever since there had been bullets to catch, and they'd just been using tricks. I knew real magic.
If I couldn't change a couple of cards, though, I couldn't see how I might manage to catch a speeding bullet in my bare hands.
"Clock's ticking," Bill said.
"You told me there weren't any clocks in the casinos."
"We're not on the – just change the cards!"
I turned the hole cards face-down again. I pictured the faces of the cards in my mind, and I imagined them turning into something else. I turned them back over.
They were the Two of Diamonds and the Two of Hearts.
"Dammit," I said. "I could have sworn something happened there."
I was so frustrated, I didn't even move when Bill's pistol clicked on an empty chamber again.
"They did change, you idiot," he said. "You flipped them."
I did a double-take at the cards. He was right. The Heart and the Diamond had switched positions.
"What'd you pull the trigger for then?" I asked.
"Rearranging the cards may be good for Three Card Monte," he said, "but this is poker. The big leagues. Nolimit Texas Hold 'Em."
I nodded. I hated him at that moment, but not just for the gun. I hated him for being right.
"Two more chambers," he said. "One of them has to be full."
That gave me a fifty percent chance of taking a bullet if I missed the next try and no damned chance of lucking out at all if I missed the one after that. I'd been fortunate so far, but eventually my luck would run out. I had to make this work.
I flipped the cards over and stared at their backs again. We'd picked up a few used table decks in the hotel store after we'd checked in. They bore the red, white, and blue roulette-wheel logo of the Revolution Casino and Hotel laid over a background of the original US flag with the circle of thirteen stars. Two of the corners had been rounded off to make sure no one could try to use them to cheat in a game.
I pictured the card faces in my mind, and I saw the Two of Diamonds change to the Five of Diamonds. I left the other deuce alone.
I flipped the cards over, and they'd done just what I'd seen. I turned to smile at Bill and instead found he'd pointed the gun right in my face.
"What?" I said, more disturbed by his angry grimace than the pistol. "It worked! I got me a straight."