Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Free Preview

It's the end of the month coming up and as usual I wanted to end strong and sell a few more books, so as a little preview for those that haven't read it yet, here's the first 4 Chapters of Queen of Diamonds. If you like what you read why don't you try it out for 99 cents? - JW

I long ago came to the conclusion that all life is six to five against.
Damon Runyon

Chapter 1 



The highway sign gave her a choice and Ania always believed in choices.                                                                     
Left two lanes for LA and then maybe even north to San Francisco.                                                                                           
Right two lanes heading straight into Las Vegas.                                                                                                                         

While she knew she was going on to California, she still liked the idea of having an option.                                                   
She had a while to think about that.
Casting a quick glance over to the black leather computer bag on the passenger seat, she patted it softly then did a happy little tap with her fingers on the steering wheel. It was a small purchase she had made at a Best Buy back in Denver. A nice satchel, all business, shoulder strap, buckles and zippers, the whole bit.
Looking up into the rear view mirror, she curled a loose strand of luxurious hair behind her ear and studied herself. She was happy with this color, thanks to Lyla’s Boutique in trendy Vail. Different than her old color, but still a blonde. Her new dark green contacts weren’t bad either. She tried a few quick looks. Smiling big now, then trying a tight thin smile but working the dimples a little.

She pushed the ultra-modern glasses up a little higher with a perfectly manicured finger. The sleek charcoal colored frames held nothing but clear glass, but it sure helped the look. She frowned, then arched one eyebrow up as if questioning something, then gave the butter melting smile again. A natural born actress.
Finding the right disc in the console, she slid it in and turned it up. The trip through Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado and Utah had been purposely chosen over driving south first to Dallas and then cutting over and down to LA. Just in case she was followed coming out of Chicago. Just in case. Not that she had really expected that, but hey.

Going this Interstate 80 West route, she would be able to see somebody coming a mile away, literally. Much lighter traffic this way, fewer people and even fewer cops. In general, less everything. Unfortunately that meant less to do and see on the way too, but Bob Seger had kept her company. Despite her young age, she had always liked the older rock guys. There were no better road songs than Seger’s.
Plus, the trip hadn’t been a complete bore. Two nights ago while going through Lincoln, Nebraska of all places, she stopped for a drink on a whim. Met a guy who looked just like Brad Pitt and as it ended up probably better than him in bed. He was a graduate student at the University of Nebraska.

The bar was on the edge of campus, not unlike a few at DePaul she used to hit back in Chicago. Wet tables, loud music, lots of shots and a lot of fun. No bad stuff, no crimes committed, just living life without a care in the world. She’d left him sleeping it off, with a stupid smile still on his face. For the life of her, she couldn’t remember his name. Better that way.
Her eyes went back to her business bag and she thought about how long the two hundred thousand in there might last. She wouldn’t be crazy with it but there would be expenses. It was hard-earned cash, not to be pissed away, at least as she figured it. Hell, that was the way her daddy taught her to earn a living and damned if she wasn’t good at it.

No doubt, this haul would keep her off the grift for a while. The ice hidden in her trunk on the other hand, that would need some additional labor to turn into cash. Big cash though, it would be worth the effort. That was the real deal here. Those rocks were her Super Bowl, the lottery ticket that finally hit. This would be no back alley deal.
She would just have to see how this rolled. Most importantly, she wouldn’t push anything or try to force something. There was plenty of time. Slow and easy is how she would play this. Let things happen in front of you, not behind you. One of her dad’s favorite sayings.

Ania smiled. It certainly wasn’t anything that she couldn’t handle. There were men who could help her get this done, and if there was one thing she was best at, it was getting men to do what she wanted them to.
She knew a guy in San Francisco. Sort of. Los Angeles, she didn’t know anyone, but you couldn’t go five feet without meeting the right kind of man in that city. So either way...but probably LA. Maybe.

Ania changed lanes without signaling and then accelerated into the interchange that took her to Las Vegas. She did it without thinking, but as soon as she took the wide turn on the freeway and straightened the wheel, it felt good. It felt right.
Sin City. Never been here.

Seger was singing about turning the page and she turned it up even louder.
She could have some quick fun and maybe even get some serious business done too. There was certainly big money here but maybe not the right kind for the ice. Never know.

Ania cruised slowly down South Las Vegas Boulevard and tried not to gawk. The big places she had always heard of floated and glittered by. Caesars, the MGM Grand, the Mandarin, Luxor, Mandalay Bay, Bellagio and on and on. A light show like she’d never seen.
She wasn’t going to mess around here and stay somewhere just off the strip. Fuck that. She was going all in, as they say here. Just for a couple of days, but hey. Turning around in a parking lot she came back for another pass and picked the hotel just like the decision to stop here in Vegas. Bang.

She pulled in, and as she approached, going past huge water fountains and seeing the sheer size of this illuminated monster, she knew it was going to be good. She prepped as she drove slowly up.
The Magnum. Celebrating its first anniversary, the sign said. “Holy shit,” she muttered as she pulled to a stop. She didn’t have her glasses on anymore – didn’t fit the occasion. She gave her hair a little shake so it wasn’t so perfect and undid one more button on the blouse. She put on her best ‘what’s the big fucking deal?’ face as a valet attendant helped her out of the car. She had two small roller bags in the trunk and her satchel, which was already over her shoulder.

“Hold on, I need my purse from one of the bags.” She smiled at him after opening the trunk herself.
“Of course, ma’am. Welcome to the Magnum. Is this your first time in Vegas?”

He was her age, probably twenty four or so, but just goofy as hell. That’s okay though, not everyone can look like Brad Pitt and goofus here might just be helpful in some way, you never know.
“No, Will. No, it’s not,” she said. She liked name-tags for just this reason. He didn’t even catch onto how she knew that right away, he was too busy trying to think of something cool and clever to say next. She threw her hair over a shoulder, put her purse inside the bigger bag and then dangled the keys to him on one finger. “Be careful with the car, okay?”

“Oh yes, yes I will.”
Ania stood and waited, smiling her trademark smile at him. She wore jeans that looked painted on, nice heels and had one hand on her hip.

He blinked twice and smiled back at her.
“Will?” She smiled that smile and cocked her head a little to one side.

“Oh...Uhm, I will, wait, I mean okay. I’m, I’m really sorry.” He waved to bellman at the curb and turned back to her. “Michael, will help you with your bags, while I do you-rrr car.” Red faced, he waved even harder for Michael.
The lobby took her breath away but her expression remained flat, one of those ‘been here done this’ looks. Approaching the front desk, she swore to herself, two days, two nights and that’s it. No more.

The guy at the desk was efficient and quick. She was lucky. Not only did she get one of the last rooms available, she got upgraded to a suite.
Eyes are everywhere in a casino and she happened to look up and right into a camera while waiting for him to get her room card. She casually, but at the same time, quickly looked down in her purse, as if she was looking for something. Overreaction? No doubt about it, she thought to herself. She just didn’t need to staring straight up at them. Any cameras, especially security cameras were just never a good thing. Never.

“Your suite will be on the tenth floor.”
“Actually, one of your regular rooms will be fine. I’m only here for two nights.” She smiled and got her purse out. God knows what a suite would cost here.

“We had a cancellation from one of the top players who just got eliminated. Please, enjoy it, Miss Kozak. The upgrade is on me.” The desk clerk smiled at her.
“Top Players?”

“The World Championship of Poker. It’s being held right here at the Magnum. You’re just in time for the final round.”
He took out a map of the property and pointed to restaurants, shops, several pools, massage stations, the casino and nightclub. There was everything a person could possibly think of or want and all of it was available twenty four hours a day.

“Thanks so much,” she smiled with a heavy sigh, “but all I want right now is a steamy hot bath, a big fluffy robe and room service.”
“We can certainly take care of that right away.” He grinned, raised a hand and waved for someone to help her with her two small bags.

A girl could get used to this, she thought as the elevator whispered her up to a little slice of heaven.

Chapter 2


I’ve always been a coffee drinker and this morning has been no different. From the large silver carafe, I pour my third big cup of this special dark roast from Morocco or some damn place. It’s only around eight thirty or so.
Not a cloud in the morning sky and as I look down at the cars and people, spectacular casinos and hotels are everywhere you look. All that glitz and glamour but I realize how much I’ve grown to hate this damn place after just a few days. Vegas is wild and fun but you can’t stay here very long. Or I can't anyway. Soon as this little hoop tee doo is over and I’ve done all the right things for the WPA as last years’ champ, I’m gone. Besides, I’ll have the Atlantic City tournament in two weeks and the Champions circuit starting in New Orleans. Both of those are kickass.

I look away from the wall of windows and walk to the small living room area of the suite. There ain’t much left to pick at on the service cart they brought up earlier besides one last piece of bacon. I look at it for a second and then down it like I haven’t eaten in a week.
Earlier, I’d had eggs, bacon, couple of English muffins with butter and real peach marmalade. Hell, I’m almost human again. The best Vegas casinos have always been able to sling some seriously good food around and the Magnum is definitely one of the best. I’ve always believed that breakfast, and I ain’t talking about bean sprout yogurt and fresh broccoli juice here, is a highly underrated meal.

I had needed that, too. Not just because of me being “over served” last night, as my daddy used to say. The Makers Mark just kept coming, so what was I supposed to do? Oh hell no, it was also because of what had happened earlier in the evening at the final table.
There had been only five card players left at the beginning of the round. When it was over there would be only two who would play tonight for the WPA Gold Bracelet and about ten million in cash.

The room phone rings and I almost spill my coffee. Who in the hell do I want to talk to right now? That’s an easy answer and I just let it go. Looking at my watch again, I finish the last swallow and then pour another cup.
I’m pacing all around the suite and finally walk back to the wall of glass. The morning paper is on the bed. I’d tried that already. Nothing will do but to drag my ass back through the flames again, so I just need to finish this painful little recap, I guess.

Kenny Whitten had been so pissed off when he had gone out that he went straight through the ballroom doors to the airport. Didn’t say y’all can kiss my ass, go to hell or nothin’. His girlfriend had been left to pack everything up and had to meet him at the airport. He’s always been that way, a little California brat, just a pouting little baby. Tried to run everyone off with straight bluff. To his credit, it did look like he had it and he sure bet it up, but you know this is poker and he wasn’t the only poker player sitting around that table. I ran away from the hand, had absolutely nothing to stay with anyway and everyone else folded too, but old Larry stayed and broke Kenny like a dry twig.
Next to be booted out, not even ten minutes later, was Karl Steiner from Germany. Nice enough guy, but hell, luckier than shit just to get to the televised rounds. Went all in on two pair and he was looking strong right up to the end until I hit that third eight I needed on the flop.

That left three players. Yours truly here, Larry Mantrell from Ada, Oklahoma, and René Gaust from Lyon, France.
Larry was old school, a gentleman and had been playing for forty years. He used to give Doyle Brunson a go for his money way back in the day. He’s still damn good, but he’s old and shaky. This week has been like his one last hurrah. It’s been a magical kind of tournament for him. Cards when he needs them, plenty of luck and everything he tries, he hits. He hasn’t made the final table for years.

Then there’s René Gaust. Sweet René, as I call him, just to piss him off, is someone who’s just so damn easy to hate. He has the normal snooty ass French arrogance thing going, basically dismissing everyone around him as some breed of dog. Truly a French blueblood, his family is loaded and connected throughout Europe. Along with over two centuries of continued, inherited wealth, they own the majority stock of the single largest telecommunications company in France. 
And oh yeah, he’s young, really young. Twenty, I think. Women love him, always a couple hanging on him. Baseball cap on backward, dresses like a high school kid, which he almost is, wears earphones and sunglasses to hide his eyes. He’s a talker during games too, heavy accent, almost constant chattering. Trying to distract, to anger or to get your nerves all jangled up.

Did I mention the little bastard is good? Probably the best all-around card player I’ve ever seen, if he keeps playing like he does now. I mean I’m only thirty one, a professional for a short five years, so it’s not like I have all these big rivalries yet. But Gaust is one of maybe four or five top players that I just can’t quite completely figure out.
I’ve won a lot of money already and I won the big dance, the World Championship, right here last year. I plan on winning a lot more, so if there’s anyone I want to beat and beat bad, like scrub the floor with him bad, its guys like Sweet René. Spoiled little rich, French prick. Other than that he’s an okay guy.

A chirp breaks up my miserable memories of last night. My cell rings this time and I look to see who it is. It’s not Laura like I thought though and I don’t recognize the area code. I let it go to voicemail.
Laura and I probably ain’t gonna work out. In fact, forget the probably, as much as I wish it wasn’t true. She’s gotten pretty damn tired of me flying all over creation and I’ve gotten pretty damn tired of her, period. This is not her world and it never will be. San Antonio is her whole world. I’m kind of with her on that, but I hate to break it to my little Laura that there are about ten more years of this deal yet to play out. Growing up  the way I did and seeing my dad bust his ass to get paid nothing, I’m never going back to living like that.  

I gotta say this, I’m having a helluva lot of fun. Playing cards all around the U.S., and the world for that matter. Beating silver spoon assholes while I’m at it. Making damn good money, eating better than the King of Siam, drinking the best there is, playing hard and I’m not talking cards all the time, staying at the finest hotels and sleeping until noon when I can sleep. What doesn’t work for you in that list?
Laura just wants to have a family and go to high school football games again. That blond girl that’s in the other room right now, though? The one all tangled up in those satin sheets? Well, she just wants to have fun. That’s kind of where I’m at right now. My mind hangs on Laura for a second because we’ve always been together. Always, being since we were seniors in High School.

She just doesn’t hold me anymore though and my mind drifts back to sitting at that table last night. Three of us. We had been playing for over an hour since Steiner had been bounced from the table. Old Larry is short stacked, with René holding the chip lead over me, but not by much as we both keep winning hands.
Larry’s not getting cards and he’s folding a lot. On the other hand, I had just won a quarter million dollar hand with a Jack high. Hey, this is poker and that’s the way it. Larry is getting desperate now and that’s never a good thing.

The old man suddenly and firmly goes all in on a hand. He’s always been a hard read because he’s got that tired old hang dog look and he doesn’t help you with other tells, either. Winning or losing, he just looks like he’s beat to shit and ready to die. I look at René right away because at this point I don’t really care what Larry has in his hand. What matters here is what the little French asshole on my right is going to do.
“Ahhh now, what do you have there, my old, old friend? Hmmm?” René gives Larry a sneer and laughs quietly. “Nothing. That’s clear.” The Frenchman looks at his two cards, the table, at Larry and back again. Then he waves a hand at me and shrugs without even looking at me. “And my big Texan here, pfft, what does it matter what you have, eh?”

We sit through about five minutes of that bullshit and then Sweet Rene just folds.
René wanted me to play him and maybe even lose because he knew that I wouldn’t just give it to Larry. It would be too bloody for him to get in with both of us. Why risk it? He had the chip lead and knew he’d most likely be playing me for the championship tomorrow night anyway. 

The Frenchman was right. It would be him and me. I had two pair, sevens and aces. Larry could have something I guess but I just didn’t see it. He was done and it was just a matter of time.
“I’m in.” I say it casually and slide over what I need to match Larry in the pot. I still have some chips left of course but until I slide all of it back this way I have two stacks instead of six. 

When I saw Larry’s eyes sag a little more, oh so slightly, I knew he had been bluffing.
He flipped his cards on the table and I couldn’t believe it. Nothing at all. A King and a six of diamonds. If you’re short stacked you’ve gotta jump out there but damn. He was just gassed, I guess. I mean, he did look tired, almost sick. Must’ve just wanted out. Hey, third place pays damn good at the championship final table. 

“Oh myyyy, Larreeee. King high, that’s eet? Hey Tex, whatchoo got, eh?” René could never just shut the hell up even if he folded a hand.
I flipped my two cards and Larry nodded his head slowly and smiled at me. He looked so damn beaten right then. It had to be sad to the people watching at home. Great drama. The old pro, the new breed, bad guys, good guys. Truth be known, I don’t really feel bad for people in situations like this. Not even Larry. I really, honestly, don’t care. This is a fucking card game, not a support group.

“Good luck, Larry.” I nod back to him with great understanding and humility, sounding just sincere as hell. After all, it’s who Cord Needham is to people. I’m the good guy. I wear a fine Resistol cowboy hat everywhere I go, but I take it off at the table as gentlemen do.
René chuckles to himself.

The dealer deals. Burns and turns.
The turn card is a damn King. The crowd cheers, whoops and hollers for a while and then quiets. René whistles softly.

I’m wearing just a small, good hearted smile but thinking to myself, Jesus, of all the damn cards in the deck. I keep smiling too because I know the camera will be on me at some point.
I look at Larry and he calmly sits and waits. He doesn’t stand up and run his hands through his hair or pace around all crazy as some of these new kids like to do when they go all in. He just sits there with his palms flat on the green felt and smiles that sad smile. Awaits his fate.

He’s dead and he knows it.
I’m thinking no way. No way another King.

The dealer pauses for a little longer than normal, then burns and turns the river card. The King of spades.
The audience erupts and the dealer slides the huge pot over to Larry.

Such is poker, ladies and gents. I had no business losing that hand and poor sad old Larry, who looked like he had one foot in the grave earlier, had no business winning the next five hands either. Big pots too. I couldn’t pull any cards after that cowboy hand of Larry’s. The well just went dry. Even René got a little quiet.
On the sixth hand, I went all in on nothing. I had to.  Ace high. I was beaten by an inside straight that Larry pulled out of his ass on the river card. Again. Somehow, I was out of the tournament. Gone. Larry and René would play for the championship tomorrow night. 

I never leave the table too quickly. I shake all the hands pat the shoulders and give a wave to the crowd. I did not vary my routine last night but I sure wanted to.
With a little jerk, I snap out of my little flashback and realize I’m looking out the window again. Well, tonight is that championship.

“Cord?” a soft voice from behind me. Even softer hands around my waist.
“Yeah?” I purposely try to sound pissed and bored, although I’m really neither.

“Would you like some company today? We could just hang out together for a bit, maybe? No commits or nothing at all, really. Just hang out?”
“That probably ain’t gonna work out too good, darlin’. I’ve got a couple of meetings and tournament appearances today, so I’ll have to get going on things pretty quick. Sorry, but you know how it is.”

“Yeah, I know. I get it. I‘ll leave you my number, just in case you have some time tonight. You want to have some breakfast before I go?”
“Already ate.”

“Sure. Sure, okay, well, just give me a few minutes.”
“No problem, but I do have to get going here pretty quick.” I have nothing to do but she needs to leave. I don’t even know her name.

“Sure, okay, Cord.”
At some point today, I really will have to do some things. Get back down there and show myself. Circulate a little bit. Hang out at the regular casino tables a little bit. The association expects that out of the big boys and they make it worth your while. Besides, it’s good marketing. Big smiles, shake hands and slowly shake my head sadly. Then give them that smile again and shrug my shoulders. Maybe that trademark soft aw shucks laugh.

First, I’m going to get in a steaming hot shower for a good twenty minutes with the dial switched to the hardest needle spray I can find.

Chapter 3 

“I’m just saying, Casey. That’s all.”

Babe Parcella stared at me from across his huge metal desk, his expression open and friendly. I knew this guy had more faces than a store full of clocks, so I didn’t entirely buy that he was being sincere. But at the same time, he was doing me a solid here, so that put me in a tough spot.
“It’s not like I’m her boss,” I told him cautiously.

A tolerant smile creased the big man’s lips. “Not saying that. But you’re practically married to her, right? You could say something.”
I raised my eyebrows at that. Married? Not even close. I don’t think that word even exists in Nicky’s vocabulary. Mostly, I think I was her guilty pleasure, or a way to have someone without being beholden to anyone. Or maybe I was just a warm body and a stiff cock. Hell if I knew.

What I did know was that I couldn’t just go and ask her to back off on Babe Parcella and the Magnum casino. That would go over like a bad beat at the final table.
But I couldn’t tell this huge son of a bitch no, either.

Babe was still watching me. His eerie similarity to Babe Ruth always put me a little on edge. On the one hand, it was familiar, because I grew up seeing those pictures and videos of home runs, him waving to the crowd and so forth. But Babe Parcella had the eyes of a predator, whereas George Herman Ruth had the eyes of a partier. Or maybe a sad clown. Still, it was weird, having one of your childhood heroes stare at you like he might decide to crack your skull just as soon as he’d shake your hand.
Yeah, I know he isn’t the Babe, but he’s the only Babe in my world these days, and goddamn if he isn’t one scary dude.

“Case? You go to sleep on me here?”
I took a deep breath and shook my head. “Nah. I’m just thinking it through.  I mean, for Nicky, the job is her life. She’s addicted.”

“So get her more addicted to your Johnson instead,” Babe suggested mildly, but his eyes narrowed slightly. He reached out and adjusted the nameplate on his desk. I knew it was to call my attention to the title under his name. Head of Casino Security. Mr. Big Shot, at least at the Magnum. “That oughta be easy enough. You’re in her bed already.”
But not in her head, I figured. Probably not her heart, either.

“Unless you don’t want to help,” Babe said. “Unless that’s it.”
“No, that’s not it,” I assured him.

“Because I helped you out here with your little problem, right?” He smiled tightly. “So I’m not seeing where me asking you this small favor is such a monumental fucking deal.”
“I appreciate what you’re doing,” I said, looking down at the stack of chips on the desk between us. “You know I’m just in a cold stretch, is all. It’s going to snap soon. They always do.”

Babe kept smiling but the grin didn’t touch his eyes. “Not always. Not for everyone.”
A cold tickle brushed the base of my spine and climbed my back. I cleared my throat. “It always has for me, Babe. You know that. You’ve seen it.”

He nodded slowly. “Yeah, I’ve seen it. Even back in the day. After that thing.”
I knew exactly what he meant. Back when I was catching in the minor leagues. Signed by the Phillies and working my way up toward the big club. Until I blew out my knee in practice. At least, that was the story we gave to the Phils. I wondered if Babe knew the truth. He probably did.

“Yeah,” I said. “I guess it wasn’t meant to be.”
“But you bounced back. You always bounce back.” He gestured toward the chips. “That’s why I know you’re good for that.”

I tried not to sigh. He had me. As long as I was at a table and in a money game, the vultures would stay back. If I stopped showing up at the tables, they’d swoop in and I’d lose a lot more than a career in the majors. I needed this line of credit, and he fucking knew it.
“I’m good for it,” I said.

“Like I said, I know.”
We were quiet for a moment. Then I said, “Look, I’ll work on her, okay? But she doesn’t listen to me so much on work-related stuff.” Truth was, she barely talked about it at all, and never asked my advice on so much as where to park.

Babe shrugged. “Just say something to her. That’s all I’m asking. She’s not your puppet, right? You can’t make her do what you want. You can only talk to her. You can only suggest. You can only point her in the right direction. It’s up to her to make the smart choice.”
He didn’t mean that at all, and we both knew it. “I can try,” I said. “She can be a handful, though. Headstrong.”

“What woman isn’t?”
I could have named a couple hundred in this town without pausing to think, but arguing with Babe Parcella is a losing bet.

“Probably none,” I agreed instead.
“So you’ll take care of this for me?”

“I’ll try,” I said.
He stared at me for another long moment, then nodded his head. “All right. Good to hear.” He stood and held out a hand the size of an Easter ham. “Always nice to see you, Case.”

I rose and took his hand. He squeezed it just hard enough to make his point, but not too hard to be obvious about it.
“Good luck at the tables,” he added.

I nodded my thanks, scooped the chips off his desk, and walked out of his office before he changed his mind.


Chapter 4 


We’ve been out here in the huge mezzanine area for at least an hour just bullshitting around with onlookers, fans and the media.
I peek back through the sets of large open doors that lead into the grand ballroom where the finals are being held again tonight. It’s pretty much a ghost town in there now. Just a couple of goofs walking around pointing at shit up in the ceiling. A few light guys, sound guys and the like, scurrying around.

Mack Reynolds and I had been in there earlier. He was the face and television announcer for all of the World Poker Association events. We had already wrapped up the scheduled interview. With all the fluffy director comments from behind the camera, lighting problems and assorted bullshit, plus Mack screwing up the questions, it took about an hour and a half.
The final table, dramatically lit up, had been used as a backdrop and Mack had asked me how this thing would unfold tonight, the strategies, the playing styles, who would be favored, blah, blah blah.

“What are we doing now, boss?” I ask while shaking another strangers’ hand and then signing an ace of spades for some guy.
“Not much more, Cord. Well, not here, anyway,” Ronnie says without looking at me.

Ronnie Turnbull is my marketing guy, travel coordinator, agent, legal advisor, consultant and accountant. And best friend. He’s been with me since I won my first average size tournament in Shreveport almost 4 years ago.
That same year, not even two months later, I got my second big win and a much bigger payday. This was at the Aruba Royale Casino and Resort. It could have been my last win, my last night in fact, if Ronnie wouldn’t have been there.

We had us a little impromptu, wild ass private beach party to celebrate the win. It was very late. There were two young ladies and everything was good at first, but then an ex-boyfriend who also happened to be an ex-con showed up. With him was a brother of the other girl. Both guys were drunk. Both were pissed. There was a very long knife and a shorter one involved.  Ronnie had saved my ass.
He got us out of there that night and got us an iron clad alibi too. There was an investigation later, but it was never even tied to us. It was all hung on the ex-con old boyfriend. Gotta admit, the guy was railroaded all the way. Needless to say, we’ve never been back to that Aruba tournament. 

Ronnie and I had grown up together in San Antonio. We were friends before I even knew what a flush straight was. There is no one else in this world I trust more than him. Including myself.
“Ohhhh myyy,” he chuckles to me now as some painted up, big haired gal is making a beeline for us through the crowd. “Y’all be nice now…then, we’re out of here.”

“Cord! Cord Needham!”
The woman is probably fifty or so and trying hard, too hard, to look thirty. In my mind there ain’t nothing worse than that.

“Well, hello there, darlin’,” I say to her, smiling that smile. Ronnie turns and walks away quickly. He laughs but covers it with a cough.
“Oh. My. GOD! I’m Patty Donovan. Howard and I watched you on television last year when you won this damn thing. I said right then and there, I said, we are coming here this year and watch that Cord Needham in person!”

She hands an expensive looking camera to her husband, no doubt Howard, and then prances over to me. Putting a hand around my waist, she shoved her considerable and fake boobs into my ribs and hugged me tight. “Just one quick shot, Cord! Just one picture!”
After the fourth picture, I am signing the back of her damn shirt, but then Ronnie rescues me by pretending we are running late and he skillfully excuses us.

Now listen, don’t get me wrong here. I ain’t Peyton Manning or Kobe Bryant. This is the poker world, not the NFL or NBA. It’s not like I have to fight my way through the wild throngs of fans everywhere I go.
But, I will say this. This is Vegas, this is big time, high stakes poker and I do have some fans. You’d be amazed probably. I have endorsements and sell things with my name on it. So, basically, Peyton and Kobe can kiss my ass, ‘cause I’m doing just fine.

On the elevator down, Ronnie gets on the phone again. He’s talking to someone in Atlantic City about the Champions Tournament coming up. Arguing about something, then agreeing and then arguing again. 
“All right, pardner,” he says after signing off the call, “Let’s go sit with the little people. You can schmooze and play some bullshit cards and thrill everybody with your mastery of the game. Then we’re done. Promise. Another hour or two in the casino and we’re done.”

I look at the ceiling and don’t say anything right away. This sucks, like I knew it would and like it always does. It’s all part of the ride we’re riding and just a part of the game, but damn it, sometimes this shit gets really old. Hey, if I was playing for another bracelet and all the marbles tonight? Well hell, that’s different, it would make all of this bullshit much easier to swallow. The fact is, though, I ain’t playing tonight and this isn’t easy.
“We got a deal?” he says. “Two more hours in the casino, have a couple casual drinks and before you know it we’re all done. Hell, maybe you and I go and get a couple big ass steaks somewhere tonight. Steaks as big as man hole covers. Just us, like the old days?”

I look at him and narrow my eyes. He always knows what I’m thinking. Well, except for Laura. He’s clueless on that. Oh sure, he knows about all the women and girls on the side, it’s just that he still figures at some point it’ll be me and Laura settling down and getting married.
But he knows where I’m at right now.  

“Then we have a few drinks and come back here to watch that little fucking French frog beat the shit out of poor old Larry. Whattya say, pard?”
“Sure. Sure, Ronnie. Just start that two hour stop watch right now, though, okay?”

“You got it.”
With perfect timing, the elevator doors slide open and we walk toward the casino entrance.

I swear there will never be a time I get tired of casinos. Sure, I get tired of what we’re doing right now, but just the pure gambling in casinos? To me it’s the ultimate high.
We walk in and I immediately see familiar faces everywhere, some standing around, some playing and some others just milling.

Ronnie and I get a drink from the waitress and cruise around a little. We move slowly but always moving. It’s better that way.
Sooner or later, I’ll sit down somewhere at one of the higher limit tables, but not with the big dogs. All the casinos and the Association love it when you mingle with what I call the upper middle class of poker players.

Casinos want the whales for sure but where they really make their money is with semi pros, tourists and people who know how to plays cards. They also have some money and are looking to throw it around. Even if they do win, though, they won’t break the bank.
I don’t care where it is or with who it is, anytime I sit down to play Hold ‘Em, it’s serious business. There ain’t no messing around. I’m out to take everybody’s money. Then again, this kind of deal today is more like an exhibition match. Sure, I play to win but I take it easy on folks and they know better than to try and run me, too. That’s just the way it is.

“Whoa, now.”
“What?” Ronnie turns to me and frowns. “What’s wrong?” As he says it, his eyes follow mine to two tables over, on our left.

A big whoop lets out and a girl claps her hands over her head. I can tell from here that she’s hotter than a two dollar pistol.
The dealer shoves a pot pile her way and she laughs out loud again. Starts stacking her chips and smiles all sexy at one of the other players.

“See?” Ronnie says. “There you go. This won’t be such a bad two hours, right?”
So having picked my table, I amble my way over and Ronnie graciously asks if it would be alright if I join the table for a bit. Just for a while now, because good old Cord here has got another engagement at four thirty and he can’t be late….

I pull out a chair. “I sure appreciate everyone here letting me barge in and play for a bit.”
“Like we got a choice,” a big guy grumbles on my left but then sticks his hand out quickly and finishes, “but I can’t think of another pro I’d rather lose to more! Big fan of yours, Cord. I’m Mike Conrad, from Scottsdale.”

“A pleasure, Mike.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Ronnie drift off to get another drink. He’s evidently surveyed the table and is satisfied with the smiles all around.

Around the table of six players it goes, with everyone saying hello and all of them recognizing who the hell I am. Except of course for the reason I picked this table to begin with. I can tell she doesn’t know who I am and on top of that, could give a shit.
She’s on my far right with an empty chair between us and she is looking at me with about the most beautiful green eyes I’ve ever seen. The look is flat though, almost no emotion. Like a shark, with green eyes, if that makes any sense.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“No, I mean is that right? Cord or Cort?”
“Oh, it’s Cord, with a ‘d’. Cord Needham, San Antonio, Texas, and it’s awful nice to make your acquaintance.”

She says nothing more just toys with a couple of chips. Stacks them, unstacks them, rolls them over and between her fingers. Little nervous ticks that card players do.
“Sorry, I just don’t keep up with pro poker players. Don’t know you, but I can tell by everyone else here that you’re a very pretty important guy.”

“Not hardly.” I just keep smiling despite the smart ass comment and reached my hand out. “I didn’t catch your name and if I don’t get it from you, I’m not gonna sleep well at all tonight.”
She finally smiles at that and almost laughs, but it’s a knowing smile. It’s a look that says Okay, I liked that one, but don’t try anymore of that home spun bullshit with me, buck. There is also something more, a little danger just under the surface with this girl.

“Hello there, Annie. You play a lot?”

“A lot. Poker you mean, right?” She blinked big and innocent, her eyebrows go up playfully.
“Uhh, yes. Poker.”

“Well, not here. Never here in Vegas, but yes I like to play. My dad taught me when I was young. He was very…tricky.” She smiles longer and better this time.
“Okay, great. Well hell, everybody, let’s play us a few hands before I got to run.” I look around the table at everyone and take my hat off, straighten my gold championship bracelet on my wrist and motion for a waitress.

Dealer deals. I don’t look at my hole cards yet, though. I hold my hand up dramatically.
“One last thing folks. Take it easy on me here. I can’t go walking out of here with my pockets hanging out, okay? Bad for the reputation, so ease the hell up.” I say it every time and it works every time.