When I busted with a score of twenty-five, I turned to look at the man more closely. “Mate, that is a bloody brilliant mustache.”
He tipped his hat, thanking me before busting with a twenty-two.
Chloe held, and the dealer revealed that Chloe had both the ace and jack of spades. The house had a jack on the up card, but flipped the hole card: a king. The dealer paid out Chloe’s winnings before collecting the cards on the table with a sweep of her hands.
“Told you!” Chloe sang, dancing in her seat and blowing Bennett a kiss. “It’s my lucky night.”
He responded with a tiny lift of his brow.
Looking across the room to the bar, I found Will, who was sipping his drink and f**king around on his phone. He looked up and caught my eye after a moment, giving me a silent fuck-you face, and I waved, indicating that I’d be back soon.
The problem was, blackjack was f**king fun. Chloe was cleaning up, winning hand after hand. And although Bennett and I were systematically losing all of our money, it didn’t bloody matter. The dealer was easygoing, Sara’s laugh was infectious, and Mustache had started cracking the best awful jokes between each hand.
“Doctor walks into a room,” he said, running his fingers over his mustache and winking at Chloe. “Says hi to the patient on the exam table, goes to make note of something on his chart.”
The dealer dealt our facedown cards and we all looked at the table in time to see the next cards arriving faceup.
“He realizes he’s holding a thermometer and frowns. ‘Well, fuck,’ he says, ‘some asshole’s got my pen.’?”
And because her sense of humor was always easy and gutter-loving, Sara completely lost it, falling onto the soft padded edge of the table in laughter and looking lovelier than I think she had all night. She was flushed from whatever she’d had to drink, but even more than that, she looked positively blissful. When she looked up and caught me staring, her smile straightened as if liquid heat had trickled into her veins, and she blinked down to look at my mouth. Going back to find her at the theater had been the best decision of my night.
Come to think of it, the only good one. I gave her a wink, licked my lips.
“You two going to fornicate or play some goddamn cards?” Chloe asked, having decided to stay with a nine showing; the table showed a six, and busted, hitting seven on top of a hole card of nine.
“A young guy walks into a bar,” our new acquaintance started as the dealer cleared the hand, and f**k I’d decided this was the best man ever to have at a blackjack table. The dealer began the process of shuffling the decks. “He orders ten shots of whiskey. The bartender says, ‘Damn, kid,’ but lines them up anyway.”
I liked Mustache because of said mustache of course, but also the fact that he looked like he spent a lot of birthdays alone. He had a way about him that mixed ease and desperation, and yet here he was, cracking dirty jokes with perfect finesse with a bunch of half-sloshed strangers. I didn’t even mind his gaze turning dopey and loaded when he turned and smiled at Sara. Couldn’t blame the bloke; I had no choice but to fall for her; Sara was as irresistible as gravity.
“So here they are: ten shots in front of this skinny beanpole kid. The kid knocks them all back one after the other, barely blinking. ‘Wow,’ says the barman, ‘what’re you celebrating?’”
Sara was already laughing, and I turned to watch her in wonder. She would never stop being a tangle of mystery, this one, anticipating dirty jokes told by an eccentric stranger in Vegas.
Mustache chuckled, shaking his head. “‘My first bl*w j*b,’ says the kid. The bartender looks surprised and says, ‘In that case let me buy you another.’” He stopped looking over at Sara expectantly.
And with both hands in the air as if dancing in victory, Sara yelled, “Kid shakes his head. ‘No thanks, man. If ten shots won’t get rid of the taste, another won’t make a lick of difference!’”
Around us, laughter roared and I realized that we had begun to attract quite a crowd to the table. Chloe was on a roll, Mustache was aces, and at nearly two in the morning, we were clearly the table having the most fun in the casino. Sara and Mustache high-fived as the dealer began flipping out the cards, wearing an amused smile.
The card play turned into a blur of jokes and drinks; Chloe whooping in celebration was interrupted often by sound of Sara’s loud, hysterical laugh. With a jerk of awareness, I turned, looking for Will at the bar. It had been a long while since I indicated we’d be done soon, and I’d completely lost track of time.
He was gone.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket, glancing up with resignation at my two remaining twenty-five-dollar chips, and texted him, We’re set. Where are you?
He texted back a few moments later, Meet you at the Venetian. I’m getting head from a dude.
“Arsehole,” I mumbled, just as Mustache started a new joke.
But the sound of his voice beside me fell silent as a hand wrapped around my shoulder. “Mr. Stella.”
The table and the boisterous crowd went silent. I caught a look of concern on Sara’s face just as I looked up, turning to see a man wearing a dark tailored suit and a very serious expression.
He wore an earpiece and an expression that communicated I was meant to take him very bloody seriously. “I’m going to have to ask you and Mr. Ryan to come with me, please.”
“What’s this about?” Bennett asked, laying his cards face down on the table. The crowd broke out into speculating whispers.
“I’m not at liberty to discuss it out here on the floor. I’ll ask you once again, gentlemen, to follow me. Now.”
Without further question, we stood, exchanging baffled looks and following the man away from the table. I turned, giving Sara an encouraging smile, mouthing, “It’s fine.”
What, after all, could we possibly have done?
The man in the black suit led us through a service doorway, down a long, empty corridor, and then through an unlabeled door. Inside the stark, white room was a metal table not unlike the one I’d started my evening with, and three metal folding chairs.
“Have a seat.” The man indicated that we each sit in one of the chairs, and then turned to leave.
“What’s going on?” Bennett asked. “We’ve followed you here readily out of courtesy. The least you can do is tell us why you asked us to leave the table.”
“Wait for Hammer.” The man nodded toward the remaining empty chair, and then left.
I settled back into my seat while Bennett stood, pacing for a few quiet minutes before sighing, and sitting down next to me again. He pulled his phone from his pocket and texted something, presumably to Chloe.
“This is a load of shit,” he grumbled.
I made a noise of agreement, but then stopped from saying more when we heard footsteps coming down the hall toward us.
Two guys walked through the door, both sporting dark suits, short-cropped hair, and hands the size of watermelons. Neither man was taller than me, but I had the distinct impression they had more hand-to-hand combat training than did I. Which is to say, some.
They stared at us for what seemed like full, heavy minutes of silence. Assessing. I felt sweat bead at my forehead, wondering if these men were the owners of the limo I’d . . . borrowed for my short romp with Sara. They were definitely either limo drivers or hit men.
Or, perhaps, they were undercover policemen here to reprimand us for hiring a prostitute. Had we actually paid for her? Could she be traced to us? Or . . . bollocks. Maybe Sara and I had been caught on camera and they were here to bust us for our public escapades earlier. I mentally filed through the phone calls I would need to make once booked on charges of public indecency. Lawyer, Sara, Mum, smug business partner, hysterical sisters. And then I saw the image of all the creepy mug shots in the paper of men and women arrested for f**king in cars, or on bridges, or on school grounds and realized this is why Sara and I kept our activities to Johnny’s club. There, we’d never see a man in a suit coming to reprimand us; Johnny would shut that nonsense down before the police even had time to enter the club’s coordinates into their GPS.
I glanced at Bennett, who, now that the men had joined the room, was sitting in his own chair looking as relaxed as he would be at the head of a boardroom table. He had one hand in his pocket, the other resting on his thigh, and was staring evenly up at the two men in front of us.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” I said, deciding someone needed to start the festivities. The guys were hulks, brutes, goons, getting their ideas for facial expressions from comic books or Tarantino films. It was almost too easy to want to have fun, just a little.
The first one to speak was the shorter of the two—though by no means short—and had a voice about as deep as a five-year-old girl’s. “I’m Hammer. This here is Kim.”
Beside me, Bennett Ryan was just drunk enough to say, “I appreciate the irony of that. On both counts.”
The man who introduced himself as Hammer stared at Bennett for a long pause before asking, “Any idea why we asked Leroy to bring the two of you back here?”
I answered, “Uh, no?” just as Bennett answered, “Well, it’s definitely not because we cleaned out the house.”
When he said that, and for the first time since we were brought back into the room, it occurred to me that we were more likely here for gambling-associated reasons than grand theft auto or public indecency. Instead of being booked and ultimately released, we were going to have our fingers broken one by one by a eunuch named Hammer and a brute named Kim. Brilliant.
Hammer smirked, saying, “Do you have any idea how many assholes like you we see back here? Out for a weekend with their STD-infested douche-bag friends, thinking they’ll use their brand-new copy of Card Counting for Dummies to clean out the house so they can go back and bang their ugly-ass girlfriends and impress them with the five hundred dollars they won?”
Clearing his throat with authority, Bennett asked, “Do we really look to you like two men who would find thrill in winning five hundred dollars?”
Kim, who was somehow both much larger and less intimidating than Hammer because of the rubies in both of his ears, lurched forward, slamming his fists down on the table, making the entire f**king room shake. I couldn’t help but notice that Bennett barely flinched at all. I sure as hell jumped; I’d been convinced the metal table was going to collapse on our legs.
“You think this is your motherfucking mommy’s house?” Kim growled, his voice as low and gravelly as Hammer’s was girlish. “You think you’re playing Go Fish at a f**king linoleum table?”
The man turned to me, eyebrows raised as if I was meant to speak for both of us.
“No,” I said, giving my best, relaxed smile. “If we were at my mum’s house we would have been offered chips and Guinness.”
Ignoring my wisecrack, Hammer stepped forward. “What do you think the house does when we get card counters in here?”
“Mate, I wouldn’t know how to count cards even if I was trained by f**king Rain Man. The repercussions are beyond me.”
I sat back in my chair, exhaling heavily. This was pants. “I think I’m baffled. I lost all my chips. Even if we were counting cards, we’re not exactly good at it, so I can’t quite suss out what we’re doing here.”
“The best counters let themselves lose sometimes. You think by counting you’ll only ever win?”
I sighed, leaning forward, my elbows resting on my knees. This was going nowhere with the continued rhetorical questions. “Can I tell you a secret?”
“I’ve never played blackjack in my life before tonight. This one?” I said, nodding to Bennett. “He negotiates drink prices when we’re sitting at a table and they’re already free. He doesn’t f**king gamble.”
Snorting, Kim said, “And yet here you are, in a two-deck pitch, you stand on s-seventeen, double after split.”
For the first time since we walked in here, I saw the corner of Kim’s lips twitch as if repressing a smile. Or a snarl. I couldn’t actually be sure.
“I’m going to give you two choices,” Hammer said. “One, I break your fingers. Or two, I break your face.”
I blinked, feeling a brief moment of pride that I had correctly predicted our punishment. But something felt off. Just because I hadn’t played blackjack in Vegas before didn’t mean I had been living under a rock. Finger-and face-breaking seemed a touch off-protocol for a couple of guys suspected of counting cards.
“Let’s see your hands,” Kim said, patting the table.
“I’ll start with the pinkie,” Hammer said, lips twitching. “No one needs their pinkie.”
“Get stuffed, all right?” I growled, feeling a disorienting mix of impatience and righteous indignation building in my chest. “Forget the accent, I’m a f**king American citizen, you arseholes—I know my rights. If you’re going to start talking about getting violent, get a f**king cop or lawyer in here.”
The door swung open, and bloody Will entered, clapping slowly. Ice trickled into my veins, and I leaned back in my chair with a harsh exhale.
“It was perfect!” He smiled at Hammer and Kim, and I groaned, dropping my head onto my arms on the table. I should have known. “You were angry, but convincing,” he said to me. “You might have thrown in an indignant fist slam for full effect, but I really like what you did with the American-citizen bit. Really got me right here.” I looked up just as he tapped his chest, over his heart, eyes soft and praising.