Everybody 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.
Net chips: -43,770.0
Expected return: -0.7672
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.
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.
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."
"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 resume, 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.
"You like it," she said.
"You've outdone yourself."
She produced another sheet. "This one, too. Be truthful."
"Two? You're going to run two ads in one day? I don't think the locals are ready for this, Mabel."
"Stop acting retarded. Just read it."
Tired of phone sex, sweet boys? Call Grandma Mabel and I will tell you about my arthritis, my bills, how people are better drivers up north, how hard it is to live on a fixed income, my ex-husband, grandkids, last operation for gallstones, and lots more. No crackpots, please.
"You're killing me," he said, swiping at his eyes. "This is a classic."
"You really think so?"
"You're taking practical jokes to a new level."
"I want to leave something behind," she said, deadpan.
"You sure you want to use your real name?"
"I could use some groupies. But enough about me. Tell me all about your problem. Maybe Grandma Mabel can help."
"Maybe you can," he said.
Mabel was one of the best judges of character Valentine had ever known, her instincts honed from years of talking to strangers on the phone. He escorted her into the living room and helped her get settled, then started the VCR and knelt beside her.
"Something unusual's going on here," he explained. "The guy on this tape is cheating, and the people who've hired me think the dealer may be helping him. Tell me what you think."
Mabel pulled her chair up within a few feet of the TV and stared at the screen for several minutes, then cleared her throat. "Well, she's definitely interested in him."
"You sound just like a cop when you talk like that."
"Excuse me. Please--define interested."
"As in she likes him. Would like to know him better."
Valentine was surprised. If anything, the dealer seemed to be holding back. It was too bad the tapes didn't come with sound; if he could just hear them talking, he might get a better feeling for what had gone down.
"She seems pretty reserved, if you ask me," he remarked.
"Oh, Tony. Sometimes you act like you just crawled out of a cave. Any woman with an ounce of class acts reserved when she's around men. Women show their interest in the opposite sex in little ways. Take this young lady. She's interested; you can see it when she makes eye contact. And when she smiles. You can definitely see it in her smile."
Excerpted from Grift Sense by James Swain. Copyright © 2003 by James Swain. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, 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.