Queen of Heartsbyslyc_willie©
"Card," I said to the dealer after tossing in my hundred-dollar ante. I took up the fresh card, adding the eight of hearts to the ten and Jack in the same suit in my hand. With the deuce, I had a straight flush. I silently thanked my good fortune, hoping I wasn't giving any tells to the other three players around the table.
I glanced to the others surreptitiously. There was Cobb, whom I knew pretty well, a big, bearded guy in his mid-fifties who was as often a drinking buddy as an opponent. He was chewing his cigar thoughtfully, tilting it up slightly with his jaw. That told me he had a so-so hand. I figured I had him.
Chicago Joe – he had only visited the Windy City, despite the implication of his name (I suppose it sounded better than 'East Rutherford, New Jersey Joe') – held a stoic expression behind his reflective sunglasses, although his left ear twitched: bad hand. I had him, too.
The third person at the table was only known as Mueller. I had only played with him once before, and didn't like him too much. He wore way too much cologne and was always fidgeting. I figure he had Tourette's Syndrome or something. Or maybe he only faked it to hide any tells. I couldn't read him all too well.
Lastly was Robin Leakey. I had played with her a few times, enjoyed a few drinks with her. While she was married – as evidenced by the sizable rock on her finger – she always hit the casino alone. She was an attractive woman, exotic, even, with her milky, alabaster skin and short, dark red hair. Her body was slender, with narrow shoulders and small breasts which were never encumbered by a bra. That much was obvious by the fact that her nipples were always erect, pushing through whichever top she wore.
On that night, Robin wore a slinky green V-neck that plunged almost all the way to her navel. While she did not have too much in the way of cleavage to show, the looseness of her blouse offered near-glimpses of what I was sure were very pink and impressive nipples. I had no doubt that Robin's exhibitionist wardrobe was intentional; anything that distracted the men gave her an edge. She was a good player, though. She had taken the first round, after all.
"Bet," Cobb said gruffly, tossing in another hundred. Chicago Joe paused a moment, then matched the bet. As did Mueller. Robin didn't hesitate, glancing to me briefly. The few times I had shared a drink with her in the lobby, she had been flirtatious, but only to a point. Had she not been married – hell, if she had given me any indication that the ring on her finger was only ornamental – I'd have let her know my sheets needed warming. But I was a gentleman, for the most part.
I took up a hundred, then another. "Raise," I said, meeting Robin's eyes.
She smiled slyly. Cobb bristled slightly. "Fine," he said, tossing in his chips. It went back to Joe, who sighed, slapping down his cards. "Fold."
I smirked. One down . . . .
"I'm in," said Mueller, dropping a green chip. Robin followed suit.
"Cards?" the dealer asked. Cobb elected for another, as did I. Robin and Mueller kept their hands.
My shit four of clubs had been replaced by a queen of hearts. I felt a moment's excitement as I arranged it, then took a sip of Scotch.
Cobb grumbled and dropped his cards on the table, leaning back. "Fold," he growled. He glared at me for a moment, then chuckled.
Mueller, stoic as he had been throughout the first two hands, picked up two green and tossed them casually on the table without a word. Robin started to reach, hesitating briefly, then added her two chips as well. I tried not to smile. No way her hand's as good as mine, I knew.
I banked the bet. "Call," I said, and laid out my cards, the deuce acting as the nine of hearts. Immediately, Robin cursed, revealing her two pair. I looked to Mueller. He had given me a good run in the previous game – which I had won – so I wasn't sure if I was about to lose six hundred bucks or not.
Mueller breathed in slowly, then laid out his low straight. Six, seven, eight, ten and jack of Diamonds. A good hand. But not good enough. He gave me a nod, stood from the table. "Good game, Mr. Sharpe," he said, then took up his beer.
I nodded back, then leaned forward and raked in the two thousand dollars' worth of chips. Not a bad return for a six-buck investment and five minutes of my time. Cobb congratulated me, then added, with a wink, that he would be in the usual lounge. I chuckled. Sure, I'll buy you a drink, I thought.
"See you guys around," Joe said with a self-deprecating look. "I'm going back to the kiddie tables."
"Oh, that's what I thought this was," I chided him as he stood.
Joe rolled his eyes. "Ha. Ha," he snapped dryly, then gave Robin a nod before departing the table.
My eyes drifted to the milk-skinned redhead as I stacked my chips. Thanks to winning the second round as well, I had a good five grand in front of me. Ten times the amount I had brought to the table. "You done for the night, as well?" I asked.
Robin's eyes smoldered slightly, her narrow yet lush lips curled at the corners. She had to be the most gracious loser I had ever met, which was most likely due to the fact that it did not happen often. "You know, I have a hard time reading you," she admitted. "The only tell I've picked up is that your left eyebrow twitches when you're borderline."
I smiled, sipped my Scotch. "I'll have to watch that."
Robin leaned with her arms folded on the table, her back straight. She may not have had much on top, but she sure knew how to use what she had. Robin was a confidently sexy woman, very sure of herself. I imagined her husband as a man easily controlled by her.
I let myself graze over the exposed portions of her body with my eyes, noting the faint spattering of freckles on her porcelain skin. Her arms from the shoulders to her hands were practically brown with the sexy patina, making for a contrast that I found erotic.
"How about one more game, Nick?" she suggested. "Just you and me. Five-buck ante, no limit."
I arched an interested eyebrow. "Why the steep stakes?" I asked.
Her eyes twinkled. "Nervous?"
I shook my head with a small laugh. "Just curious."
Robin shrugged. "I'm feeling lucky," she said. But I noticed her temples moving as she worked her jaw. There was a note of desperation about Robin's actions I had never seen before. I decided not to think about it; a good poker player did not let personal feelings influence his decisions. It was not my obligation to deduce Robin's financial situation and her attendant motives for gambling.
I picked up a stack of green chips and let them clack-clack-clack back onto the table. "Sure."
Robin grinned and eased back, giving a nod to the dealer. Blue-backed cards slid across the table toward us. I took them up as Robin did the same. My cards were a random mix; three of clubs, seven of spades, nine of diamonds, ten of spades, and a sharp deuce. I took that last card as a positive sign.
"Ante up," Robin said, tossing five hundred on the table. Her face was blank, expressionless. I followed her lead, slapped down the three and the seven. "Cards," I said to the dealer. He shot them to me, as well as two to Robin.
I tossed in another five. "Bet."
Robin's nostrils flared slightly, but she did not hesitate to match the bet. "Raise," she said, flashing her green eyes to me while dropping one large on the pot.
I smiled slowly. A reckless feeling rolled through me. "Oh, you are feeling lucky, aren't you?" I said, matching the bet. "I see your thousand, and raise you another." I felt pretty confidant, despite the fact that all I had was a pair of tens.
Robin watched me drop the chips, and swallowed nervously. Or perhaps it was just for show; I had seen Robin fake nervousness before, to encourage her opponents to overextend themselves. She glanced briefly to her cards, then matched the bet. The chips danced on the pile already made. She pulled her hand back, then took up another stack of green chips. She let them fall slowly, deliberately. "And I raise you another grand."
I met her eyes, not sure what I saw there. Confidence? Desperation? This time, it was I who hesitated, and Robin smiled slowly. I considered what I held: a simple pair of tens. Not the best hand, but not the worst, either. If Robin was bluffing, if my instincts about her were correct, I stood a good chance of being thirty-five hundred ahead. And even if not, I would still leave the table with three times the amount of money I had sat down with.
"Sure," I said at last. "What the hell." I tossed in another thousand. Robin watched the chips dance in the middle of the table. I got the immediate impression she had not expected to see that.
Robin breathed in slowly, then lay down her cards. "Pair of nines," she said, not looking to me.
I let mine drop with a grin. "Tens."
Robin cursed under her breath and sagged back. "Son of a bitch," she muttered. She looked absolutely crestfallen, and for a moment, I took pity on her. But just for a moment. This was the nature of the beast, after all. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I had endured nights in which I had left the casino with my pockets thousands of dollars lighter myself; I could feel for Robin, but fair was fair. The game was what it was.
I gathered my chips, called for a steward to take the chips and cash them in. The young man headed away hurriedly; he was a kid I had seen a few times before, who knew I was a good tipper. He would have my cash quickly.
Robin stared at her small mound of chips – just over a thousand, little more than that which she had begun the night – and ground her teeth. She took up her half-finished glass of Chardonnay and downed it.
"Good game," I said.
Robin licked her lips, then forced a smile. Finally, her eyes settled on mine. "Yes it was, Nick," she said, then scooped up her chips and left the table.
I watched her go, admiring that tight, round little ass beneath the loose black skirt she wore. But more than the base and brief sexual thoughts I entertained about Robin, I wondered as to her conduct. Robin had never given me the impression that she took gambling any more seriously than I. Yet, in the space of a single game, I had gained the idea that there was something troubling her. Something for which she needed money to resolve.
The steward returned with my eighty-five hundred in crisp, organized bills. I gave both he and the dealer fifty bucks, thanked them both. Then I headed to the lounge.
Cobb was a funny guy; he had a joke for any and every topic. After finding him at the bar in the casino, we retired to a table and I treated him to a couple belts of Maker's Mark while indulging in my usual libation of Glenmorangie on the rocks. Within half an hour, he had my sides protesting with his latest round of mirth.
"Three guys die, and are waiting to get into Heaven," Cobb said as we nursed our drinks. "Saint Peter tells the first guy, 'Heaven's pretty close to capacity. Tell me how you died, and we'll see if we can fit you in.'
"So the guy says, 'I've lived a Christian life. Went to church every Sunday, even sometimes on Wednesdays. I never hurt anyone, and I was a good father.'
"'Very commendable,' Saint Peter says.
"'Okay, so I come home one day to my high-rise condo,' the guy says. 'Right away, I can tell something's wrong. I hear noises from the bedroom, sounding like two voices – a man and a woman – talking hurriedly. I had been suspecting my wife of having an affair for some time, but I didn't want to believe it.'
"'A terrible thing, adultery,' Saint Peter says.
"The guy continues: 'So I run into the bedroom. My wife is sitting at her vanity, looking innocent. But I know she's not. So I start looking around, and notice the balcony door is open. I run out, and there's this guy, hanging off the balcony by his fingertips, wearing nothing but a bathrobe. I go berserk, start stomping on his fingers. He lets go, and drops twenty stories to the ground. But, he hits the bushes, breaking his fall, and I can still see him moving around.'
"'I'm not really thinking too clearly. I run back into the bedroom, and start pushing the armoire out the balcony. It's the heaviest thing in the world, but I am so blinded by rage that I don't care. I shove it against the railing, the railing breaks, and the armoire plunges twenty stories down and lands right on top of my wife's lover, killing him instantly. But the strain was so great that I had a heart attack, and died right there, on the balcony.'
"Saint Peter puts his hand on the man's shoulder. 'That is truly a tragedy, my son,' he says. 'Heaven has a place for you.' So he opens the gates and lets the man in.
"The next man steps up, and Peter asks him how he died.
"'Well, good saint,' the man says. 'I have always honored God in all that I did. Even though I was a lawyer, I defended only people whom I felt were innocent.'
"'Very commendable,' Saint Peter says.
"'I lived in a high-rise condo, on the twenty-first floor,' the man says. 'I had just successfully defended a man wrongfully accused of murder, and cleared his good name. Wanting to relax, I took a shower, put on my robe, and stepped out onto the balcony to enjoy some fresh air. But the balcony railing broke, and I began falling. However, I caught myself on the balcony below mine, barely hanging on by my fingertips. I said a thankful prayer to God for saving my life, but then this man comes out and starts yelling at me.'
"'He stomps on my fingers, making me loose my grip and fall again, this time all the way to the ground. But God, it seems, is with me once more, for I land in soft bushes and have little more than scratches and cuts. Then, out of nowhere, this enormous armoire falls down from above, crushing me to death.'
"Saint Peter shakes his head with a 'tsk, tsk' sound. 'That is a tragic end to a good life,' he says. 'Heaven has a place for you.' So he opens the gates and lets the man in.
"The third man steps up and faces Saint Peter. 'Heaven is nearly full, young man," Peter says. "Tell me how you died.'
"The man wrings his hands. 'Okay,' he says. 'So, I'm hiding in this armoire . . . .'" Cobb trailed off, grinning.
I sputtered with laughter, shaking my head ruefully. "Good one, Cobb," I said.
He laughed as well, showing cigar-stained teeth. "Thought you might like that one, Nick."
I raised my glass, still chuckling. "To good humor," I said.
"Good humor," echoed Cobb.
A small purse fell to the table, just before Robin pulled out a chair and took a seat. "I hope this isn't a private party, gentlemen," she said. "If it is, I'm crashing."
The smile never left my lips as I looked Robin over. "And I'm buying," I said.
She pursed her lips a moment, looking to me. "Damn right you are," she said.
I laughed softly, looking around for one of the busty cocktail waitresses in their tight, sleeveless tuxedo shirts, and beckoned her over. I turned back to Robin. "Least I can do for taking your money."
"Oh, hey, careful, Nick," Cobb warned me. "The game stays at the table."
I glanced to him with mild admonishment. "You're right," I said. "I—"
"How did you know I was bluffing?" Robin asked quickly.
I looked back to her, noting the fierce glow in her peridot-colored eyes. "I guessed," I said.
She looked surprised. "You guessed?"
I nodded, indicated the cocktail waitress as she stood over Robin's shoulder. "I guessed," I repeated. "What do you want to drink?"
"Cosmo. Grey Goose," Robin said with skipping a beat. "Did I have any tells?"
I chuckled, peripherally aware as the waitress headed back to the bar. "Why are you so worried? Everyone has tells. Is that what this is about?"
Robin sat back, sighing heavily. Her eyes roamed over me. "I want another game. Just you and me. No ante, no bets, just five grand on the line."
I arched an eyebrow in interest, then chuckled. I glanced to Cobb, who gave me an interested look, then back to Robin. "A casino is the wrong place for desperation."
Robin frowned, insulted. "I'm not—" she began, then stopped, casting her gaze down. She worked her jaw a moment, those sexy red lips parting softly. "I can take you."
I sipped my Scotch. "Maybe," I said. "But I've had a good night. I think I'll stop while I'm ahead."
Robin glared at me, her green eyes strong, bright, almost intimidating. "What's'a'matter? Don't you have the balls?"
"Whoa, whoa," cautioned Cobb.
I ignored his words and stared back at Robin. "Actually, I do. Two of them. Big and full and ready to burst. Why? You willing to do something about that?" Alcohol and my gambling high were making me feel reckless.
Robin didn't hesitate as she shot back. "Maybe."
"Huh?" muttered Cobb.
I grinned at Robin. "You can't play me, baby," I said, and eased back. The cocktail waitress returned, set a crimson-tinted martini down before Robin. The redhead ground her teeth a moment, then took up the fragile glass and tilted it back. Half of the cosmo was gone when she set the glass back down.
"What is it, Robin?" I asked her. "You've never been serious about gambling before. You played your hands, took your losses well. Why is this different?"
Robin tapped her fingers along the stem of the martini glass, breathing in and out. "I need the money," she said. "I need it tonight."
I frowned. "Why?"
She sighed heavily. "I owe money," she said. "I've almost got it all, but I'm five grand short. I have to have it tomorrow, or . . . ."
Cobb leaned forward. "Or?" he asked.
Robin shot him a look. The fear and anxiety was suddenly obvious on her face. She didn't say a thing.
"Who do you owe?" I asked.
Robin's lips quivered as she took a breath. "Andre Navokov," she said in a heavy voice.
Cobb and I exchanged a quick glance and groaned in unison. "Jesus Christ," he muttered.
"Are you fucking stupid?" I asked Robin bluntly. "You took a loan from the most psychotic Russian mobster—"
"Yes!" she cried, slapping her hand to the table. "I'm stupid, all right? I started doing well at the tables, then fell back, and I needed to replace the money I took from my husband's account so he wouldn't notice! Fucking sue me!"
I sighed heavily, considering my options. "You being level with me?" I asked her.
Robin lifted her head. Her eyes were swollen, red, glistening with tears that threatened to burst. "Yes."
I closed my eyes a moment, then reached into my jacket for my billfold. "Fine," I said, beginning to count through the hundreds. "But you owe me, Robin. I won't be as bad as Navokov, but—"
"No," she said firmly, grabbing my wrist. Her eyes burned into mine. "I won't get out of debt with one man just to be in debt with another."
I stared back. "So you want a one-shot game?" I asked. "What if you lose? Then you'll be ten grand in the hole and even more fucked. Don't put this on me, Robin. I'm sorry you made a bad decision, but you made it."
"I know that," she hissed defensively. Her hard features relaxed slowly, and she slid back across the table, taking up her drink. "I'll sweeten the bet."
I narrowed my eyes in suspicion. "How so?"
She gulped down the rest of her cosmo, took a breath to steady herself. "One round, five large," she said. "Cobb deals. I win, I take your money and pay off Navokov and go home with my kneecaps intact."
"And if you lose . . . ." I prompted.
Robin stared at the top of the table, licking the edges of her teeth. Her pale cheeks colored slightly. "If I lose . . . I still get the five."
I snorted. "And what the hell do I get?"
She lifted her dazzling green eyes slowly. "Me."
"Ooo," I heard Cobb mutter in interest.
I blinked, wondering if I had heard Robin correctly. "What was that?" I asked.