“I can beat any poker player in the world,” Jack Donovan whispered.
Gerry Valentine leaned on the cold metal arm of the hospital bed while staring into the eyes of his dying friend. They’d gone to grade school together, gotten hauled into the principal’s office a few dozen times, and when they’d gotten older, broken a bunch of laws together. They were as close as brothers, and to see lung cancer take Jack’s life away had been one of the most painful things Gerry had ever experienced.
“Think we should go find a game?” Gerry asked.
A weak smile crossed Jack’s lips. Gerry had flown into Atlantic City from Florida that morning and spent the afternoon at Jack’s bedside, reminiscing with his friend. When nightfall had come, the nurse on duty had allowed Gerry to stay well past visiting hours.
“I’m serious,” Jack whispered. “I can beat any player in any game.”
“Is this a scam?”
Jack was on oxygen, his voice barely audible. “Yeah. Came to me when I was getting chemotherapy. The gaff is invisible, and there’s no evidence left behind.”
Jack had been a scammer since they were teenagers, and he knew all the angles. A scam that didn’t leave evidence could make someone rich beyond their wildest dreams.
“And have you actually tried it out?” Gerry asked.
“What, you think I’m going to hustle the nurses?”
“So you don’t really know if it works,” Gerry said. “Stuff that looks good on paper doesn’t always work in the real world. Remember that time you fell in the fountain outside Caesars, and nearly drowned?”
Jack rolled his eyes. “Did you have to bring that up?”
“Look, Gerry, this is the crown jewels of poker cheating. I taught it to some guys who want to scam a poker tournament in Las Vegas. Only, now they’re reneging on their end of the deal.”
“They won’t pay me. They know I’m dying, so they think they can screw me.”
Gerry didn’t think there was anything lower than what Jack was describing. Whoever had said there was honor among thieves hadn’t known many thieves.
“What do you want me to do?” Gerry asked.
“Remember Vinny Fountain?”
“Vinny wants to buy the scam for a hundred grand. I want you to sell it to him and give the money to my mom. She’s living on federal assistance.”
Jack’s feet were sticking out at the end of the bed and Gerry pulled the blanket down to his toes. As a kid, Jack had been a runt, and everyone in the neighborhood had called him Little Jack. Then one summer he’d shot up like a beanpole, and lost the adjective.
“I need to stretch my legs,” Gerry said. “Want me to get you something?”
“What’s the matter?” his friend asked.
“I just need to think about this.”
“You scared your father will find out?”
Jack knew him too well. Gerry had joined his father’s casino consulting business a year ago. The casinos paid them to catch cheaters, and he didn’t think his father would be too happy to find out his son was selling cheating secrets to scammers.
“I could get somebody else,” Jack offered.
“No, I’ll do it,” Gerry said. “I just need to figure out how to keep my father in the dark. What’s this scam, anyway?”
Jack lifted his head and looked straight down at the floor. Gerry looked as well, and spotted a canvas bag lying beneath the bed. He knelt down and parted the bag with his fingers. Inside were a dozen decks of cards, and a metal strongbox with the words danger, do not open! printed in white letters across the front. Jack had always liked practical jokes. Gerry closed the bag, stood, and went to the door.
“You want something?”
“Get me a Coca-Cola,” Jack said.
The night Jack had fallen into the fountain outside Caesars Palace in Atlantic City and nearly drowned had been a classic example of a perfect scam gone wrong. Gerry knew this better than anyone else because he’d orchestrated it.
He walked through the hospital’s cafeteria and found the bin with iced sodas. He pulled two out, then selected a couple of sandwiches from the pre-fixed food section. When he went to pay, he caught the cashier yawning.
The wall clock said eleven o’clock. That didn’t seem real. He’d arrived at noon, and had been talking with Jack for most of the day. It was strange that the debacle at Caesars hadn’t come up before now; it had been the first and last time they’d tried to scam a casino together.
Gerry had been eighteen at the time. His father was a detective with the Atlantic City Police Department, and had been assigned to protect the island’s twelve casinos. His father knew more scams and greasy hustles than anyone around, and as a result, Gerry overheard a lot. One night, while his parents were doing the dishes, his father had told his mother that Caesars had seen a rash of marked cards called luminous readers. These cards could only be read by someone wearing glasses or contact lenses outfitted with special infrared material. Gerry, who’d been in the next room watching TV, immediately ran upstairs and called Jack on the phone.
“You’re not going to believe this,” Gerry told him.
Jack found an optometrist in town willing to fit him with special contact lenses to read luminous paint. The lenses were difficult to see through, and Jack spent several days walking around wearing them. When he stopped bumping into things, he called Gerry on the phone and told him he was ready to scam Caesars.
That night, Gerry drove Jack to Caesars in his father’s car. The casino was a replica of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, only smaller and not nearly as opulent. Nothing in Atlantic City was as opulent as Las Vegas, yet it hadn’t stopped the place from making billions of dollars a year.
Caesars sat on Atlantic Avenue. Gerry pulled the car in front, and watched Jack put drops into his eyes, then pop the contact lenses in. Too many cops in Atlantic City knew Gerry, and he couldn’t walk into a casino without someone recognizing him. So, it was up to Jack to rip off the place.
“Good luck,” Gerry said.
“This is going to be like stealing candy from a baby,” Jack said.
Jack got out of the car, and walked across Caesars’ promenade. The place was fancy, with lots of nude statues and gushing water fountains. Jack walked directly into the largest fountain, his body flipping over the metal railing and going headfirst into the water. He had not practiced with the lenses at night, and was almost blind.
Gerry jumped out of the car and saved his friend from drowning, but not without getting collared by casino security, and by a cop for leaving his car illegally parked. When neither authority liked the bullshit story Gerry concocted to explain what had happened, his father was summoned. It had been a long night.
That had been many years ago. Now it seemed funny as hell, but the truth was, they could have both ended up in jail. That was how Gerry saw his past now; there were consequences for breaking the law. Getting married and having a baby had changed his perspective.
Gerry pressed the elevator button while holding the sodas and sandwiches against his chest. The hospital was quiet, and he waited while humming a song he couldn’t get out of his head. Finally he decided to take the stairs.
The stairwell had a dank smell. Halfway up, he heard footsteps, and looked up to see an Italian guy about his age coming down. The guy was dressed in black, had pocked skin and wore a scowl on his face. Normally, Italians were hospitable to other Italians. This guy wasn’t, and grunted under his breath when Gerry said hello.
“Suit yourself,” Gerry said when the guy was gone.
A minute later he walked into Jack’s room. The monitor next to Jack’s bed was beeping, and the oxygen tube that had been attached to his friend’s nose had been ripped out, and lay on the floor. Jack lay with his arms by his side, his chest violently heaving.
Gerry hit the red emergency button on the wall to summon the nurses. He stared at the monitor; Jack’s oxygenation had fallen below 80 percent. He put his face a foot from his friend’s.
“Who did this?”
Jack’s eyes snapped open. “Hitman . . .”
“Hitman for who?”
“Guys I taught scam . . .”
“Why? You can’t hurt them.”
“Afraid I’d squeal . . .”
“Squeal about what?”
Jack’s hand came out from beneath the sheet. Clutched between his trembling fingers was a playing card. Gerry took the card: It was an ace of spades from the Celebrity Casino in Las Vegas.
“Is this part of the poker scam?”
Right then two nurses ran into the room. They pushed Gerry away from the hospital bed as they worked to get Jack’s oxygen intake back to normal. It was at that moment that Gerry noticed that the canvas bag underneath Jack’s bed was gone. He shouldered his way between the nurses and lowered his face next to Jack’s.
“What’s the scam?” Gerry whispered.
Something resembling a smile crossed Jack Donovan’s face, like he was happy to have pulled Gerry back into the fold. But then the look was replaced by one of pure fear.
“Tell me,” Gerry said.
Jack’s mouth moved up and down.
“I . . . so . . .”
“You so what?”
“I . . . so . . .”
“Bye . . . Gerry.”
Jack’s mouth stopped moving. And then he stopped breathing. Jack had accepted that he was dying, and he had asked his friends to accept it as well. Gerry had tried, yet it didn’t make it any easier now that it had actually happened. He bowed his head and wept.
Excerpted from Deadman's Poker by James Swain. Copyright © 2006 by James Swain. Excerpted by permission of Fawcett, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.