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Chapter One

 

The man at roulette table number three on the main floor of Herod’s Poker Room and Casino played like a fool, and it drove Randy Jansen crazy.

Randy lay sprawled across the plush leather sofa in Billy Herod’s office, making occasional “Yes, I’m listening to you” noises as his employer launched into one of his monologues, but mostly Randy watched the security feed from the casino floor.

Though it was money in the bank for the house, this guy’s stupid playing made Randy itch. With the grimness of someone marking out a plot for his own burial, the somber-looking and meticulously clean-cut man laid out his chips and bet on black, over and over again. He lost every single time.

A nudge to his foot startled him out of his voyeurism, and Randy glared at Billy. “What?”

“Quit scanning my floor for dates, and tell me what you think of my brilliant plan.” Billy planted himself in front of Randy, his paunch rolling over the waistband of his expensive trousers. “Go on, I dare you to tell me it won’t work. I dare you.”

Randy glanced across the room to the other occupant of the office. Billy Herod’s godfather, Crabtree, was round and soft and tricked out in a massive head of white hair like Santa. He even had Santa’s laugh, and the sound rumbled out of him now, his blue eyes twinkling as he took in the byplay between Randy and Billy.

The fuck if Randy would give Crabtree the satisfaction. He turned to the television screen.

The man’s sweat wasn’t actually visible through the feed, but enough of the tells were there for Randy to read perspiration. The money, which could never have been much and was absolutely more than the guy should have been gambling with to start, was almost gone. The man’s shoulders rounded, and he watched the chips go as if sending his children out to slay monsters.

This time the nudge came at Randy’s shoulder. “Randy.”

Randy glanced at Crabtree, whose whole body trembled with his mirth, and yes, it did look like a bowl full of jelly. Randy wondered how many people had let themselves be distracted by this image right up until the moment the knife went into their belly, Santa’s eyes still dancing as he bled their life away.

Randy.” Billy tried to poke again, but Randy rolled onto his back at the last second, escaping the jab.

He looked up at Billy. “It won’t work.”

Billy beamed and hitched his thumbs in his belt loops. “Oh, it will. See—”

“Just because you hire a bunch of twinks to walk around shirtless, it does not automatically follow that rich gay men will come in here to gamble. It’s a possibility, yes. But it’s also a possibility there won’t be enough rich men for you to make back what it’s going to cost.”

Billy sneered with imagined superiority. “It will work, because more and more of you gays are coming to Vegas, and I read a magazine that said gay men have money to burn. And it makes sense—no kids, and you’re even more oversexed than regular men. Rich gay men will come in droves when they see what I offer every Tuesday night.”

From the other side of the room he heard Crabtree’s chuckle.

Randy covered his face with his hands and shook his head. “God, they hit you with the stupid stick way, way too hard.” Randy ticked his objections off on his fingers. “First of all, Junior, you’d have to hire all these cute young men to be your sugar-daddy bait, and cute twinks willing to work for your cheap-ass wages are not as thick on the ground as you might be assuming. They can get more working on the street. Which brings me to point two—if you get anyone in here, you will get street boys, which means you will also get police. As I recall, you and Crabtree don’t care for that kind of attention. Third, no matter how oversexed gay men might be, we aren’t idiots, and if you treat us like fools you’re generous enough to bilk every Tuesday night—”

He stopped as he realized his employer wasn’t listening, already lost in his latest wild hair. Crabtree’s laugh rumbled, and the old man occasionally slapped his thigh.

Randy tossed Crabtree a quick flash of his middle finger and settled into the couch. “Never mind. It’s a brilliant idea, Billy. Go for it. Just make sure I work that night, so I can watch.”

Billy rubbed his hands together as he stared at the faded 1960s photo of the Strip hanging above his godfather. “I’m gonna bring back the glory days, Randy. I’m going to be rich, and then—” He glanced down at Crabtree and briefly scowled. “Well. Then it will be good again.”

“You’re already rich.” Randy found his quarry on the cam. The man was still there because he hadn’t run out of money yet. He looked like somebody had beaten him about the head as once again the wheel failed to land on black. Randy threw up his hands. “Jesus, buddy. Switch to fucking red.

“What?” Billy jerked himself out of his vision. He zeroed in on the screens with hawklike focus. “Is somebody cheating me?”

“God no.” Randy pointed to Roulette 3. “This guy keeps betting on black, over and over again. The wheel hasn’t hit black in six spins, but he just keeps at it.”

“Oh?” Billy smiled and leaned in closer. “Bet black again.”

Randy shoved him away from the camera. “No. I want him to go to his room, get drunk and watch some porn on pay-per-view.”

“You want him to be such a good boy, why don’t you tell him to call his wife?” Billy stage-winked at Randy. “Because I’m right, aren’t I? There’s a wife at home.”

“Shit, no. There’s no wife.” Randy grimaced as the man ran his thumb along the pitiful stack. “He doesn’t have kids. He wanted some, maybe, but he never had any. He’s sure as hell not married. There was somebody, but they’re gone now.” On the screen, the man’s thumb slid around the top chip reverently. Randy shook his head. “And the cash went with them.”

“You’re full of shit.” Billy shook his head. “You can’t know all that.”

Randy could, and he did. He’d been watching this guy for half an hour. The particulars might shift a bit, but he knew he was more right than wrong. “He’s been dumped and screwed out of money, and now he’s decided he’ll turn his life around by betting his last dollar on the goddamned roulette wheel—by betting on black on a wheel which hasn’t won black since he sat down.”

Crabtree ambled over to stand behind Billy. Blue eyes flickered across the screen as they took in tells, making judgments, assessments and predictions—all in a matter of mere seconds. Flattening his lips, Crabtree lifted his drink.

Fucking hell. Randy had really hoped he was wrong this time. Why, he didn’t know. Something about this guy got to him.

He returned his focus to the screen as Roulette Man slid another five-stack forward, all on black. Again.

Billy shook his head, mystified. “Why the hell does he keep doing that?”

“Because he’s an idiot,” Crabtree replied into his drink.

Randy cut a glare at the gangster. “Because he thinks the wheel owes him. He’s not an idiot. He suffers from delusional thinking. It’s been red too long. It’s due to go black, more now than ever. He’s thinking about laws of averages, and probably fate too. It has to fall to black. But the wheel isn’t ruled by averages or fate. It’s ruled by chaos. It’s completely random. It doesn’t owe him black. It doesn’t owe him anything.”

Crabtree grunted. “Which is a long way of saying he’s an idiot.”

Randy’s fingernails bit into his palms as the dealer called a halt on bets. The ball began to slow, getting ready to bounce itself into its final resting place.

“You do realize,” Crabtree said as the wheel continued to go around, “Billy Junior is not entirely wrong. The twinks will come because they will be thinking of the sugar daddies. The sugar daddies will come for the sex. And they’ll do the negotiating over these tables and the machines and at the bar, and they’ll finalize the arrangement upstairs in our hotel rooms.”

Billy turned to his godfather, surprised. “You really think it will work?”

Randy kept tracking the ball. “It’s tacky as hell, and I can’t believe you’re encouraging him, Crabtree.” Land on black, you fucker. Land on black.

Crabtree snorted. “Of course it’s tacky. Everything about this place is tacky now. I didn’t say it was a good idea. I just pointed out it would work. Except, as you say, for the police. Which will never do. But the fact remains, idiots are idiots and make us a lot of money.”

The ball landed. Randy swore, and Billy clapped his hands.

Crabtree sighed. “Ah, the dear, sweet lambs. They never disappoint.”

Roulette Man shrank farther into his chair. He had one stack of five chips left in front of him, and then it would be over.

“There’s got to be a way around the police.” Billy stroked his chin as he walked away from the camera screens. “I’ll have to work on that. Thanks for bringing it up, Randy.”

“You’re not welcome.” Randy thought the man at roulette might seriously vomit on the table. Over five fucking dollars. Goddamn, but Randy hated this. He hated how it bugged him as much as he hated watching. He should get up and forget about it, but for some reason he couldn’t.

Crabtree sat on the edge of the sofa and patted Randy’s foot. “People are people. They will be the card they were dealt to be.”

“This guy’s smart. Normally, anyway. He’s just got his head wrong.”

“Oh yes,” Crabtree agreed. “This one’s an ace.”

“You think?” Randy tilted his head and studied the man on the screen with new eyes. Then he nodded. And grimaced. “Fucking hell, he is. And stuck on playing himself low.”

Billy settled in at his desk. “You two and your aces and kings. You can’t figure people out just by watching them for five minutes.”

“It’s been half an hour,” Randy corrected him, “but yes. You can. And in a lot less than five minutes. It’s called a tell, Billy.”

“But you were so specific with this one,” Billy dogged, leaning forward now. “You think you’re right? This guy’s been dumped, cheated out of money and down to his last dollar?”

“Yes,” Randy snapped.

Crabtree looked amused. “And for some unknown reason you care about him.”

Randy glared at him. “Not everyone is as unfeeling as you.”

“No, but you usually aren’t this involved. You’ve been funny, in fact, ever since Mitch got married.” A smile played at the edges of Crabtree’s lips. “Randy Jansen, are you going soft on me? Do you wish you could go down there and sweep this sorry little sack off his feet, then console him and live happily ever after?”

Randy rolled his eyes. “Oh yeah, that’s it. I just wish I could go down there and save his poor, sorry ass. I’m dying for an excuse.”

Billy leered at Randy. “Bet you can’t.”

Randy snorted. “You want me to go down there and seduce this guy on a bet?”

“I want you to go down there, flirt with this guy and find out his story. See if he’s what you think he is. And if you aren’t one hundred percent right, and if you don’t get him into bed with you, I win.”

“You’re a sick fuck, and I’m not taking your bet.”

“Okay—go and see if you’re right. I want to know.”

“If he’s gay?”

“If you were right about what happened to him.”

Randy eyed Billy warily. “Why?

“Because I’m curious.” When Randy snorted, Billy waved a hand airily. “I am. I want to know if you’re right or wrong, or even just close. I want to know if people can be pegged this well. It could be interesting.”

Which meant he thought it might be profitable.

Randy caught Crabtree observing him with an interest that unnerved him and forced his attention to the security feed. He thought of Crabtree’s blithe dismissal, of his own frustration. Maybe I can re-screw this one’s head on just a little. Send the ace to the top of the pack again. A sort of public service.

Besides, despite being a bit morose, Roulette Man was hot, and Randy enjoyed flirting. Probably would come to nothing, but it was always fun to mess with a hot straight man.

“Not that I’m taking it,” Randy said as the ball spun again, “but what would you want to bet for?”

“If I’m right, you’re one of my shirtless twinks on opening night for Gay Nite.”

Randy laughed. “I’m not a twink.”

“Then you’ll be whatever you are, but you’ll be in the sexy getup. Or at least something really embarrassing for you. But if you’re right, I make sure you get your own twink. Or whatever. Whichever one you like best gives you his full attention for the evening.”

Randy considered this. On the monitor, the roulette wheel went round and round. Randy knew with soul-deep certainty he wasn’t wrong.

Unfortunately Crabtree was also right. Randy had been feeling funny the past few months, and he didn’t like it. He was restless, irritated and sometimes even lonely. Were twenty dollars of drinks and several hours of conversational dirge worth potential, unspecified tail?

Would it make the restlessness and loneliness better or worse?

Crabtree sipped his drink again. “When an ace falls, he doesn’t get up easily. The only way aces go high after falling as hard as this one has is under extraordinary circumstances. The odds are bad, Randy.” He stroked Randy’s ankle. “You can make much better use of your time and talents.”

Randy paused. It’d been a while since he’d gotten kinky with Crabtree, and yeah, that’d do for a distraction.

On the video screen, the roulette ball went round and round and round, its final destination impossible to guess.

“How would you verify it?” Randy asked Billy. “How would you tell who was right or not? Would you take my word for it?”

Billy shook his head. “Has to be a witness. Someone neither of us could pay off. Who’s working bar tonight?”

“Scully.” Randy tracked the ball. Land on black, goddamn it.

“Scully will do nicely.” Billy threaded his hands behind his head. “So?”

Crabtree said nothing, but his massage on Randy’s ankle became more direct, his invitation quite clear.

Randy couldn’t take his eyes off the ball. It started to bounce, ricocheting wildly across the spines. Why would anyone bet on this, outside of masochism?

He had to find out what this guy was about.

“I pick the guy,” Randy said at last.

“That’s what I said.”

“No—I pick who you hire. And he understands the full-service nature of his employment.”

Billy shrugged. “Sure. Is it a deal?”

“Yes.” The ball had landed once more on red. “Fuck.

Crabtree lifted his hand from Randy’s ankle. He studied the screen for a minute then finished off his drink before setting it on the edge of Billy’s desk. “Better get down there. If he really is out of money, he’s going to run away.”

Randy stood and slid into his shoes, wondering why he felt so disoriented and nervous.

“Remember,” Billy called as Randy headed for the door, “go to Scully to verify.”

“Give your fallen ace my love,” Crabtree called, as Randy pulled on the doorknob.

“Fuck you,” Randy replied.

“You turned me down, remember?” Crabtree called as Randy squared his shoulders and headed for the elevator.

 

 

As the last of his chips slid across the felt, Ethan Ellison wiped his hand over his mouth, suppressing the urge to vomit.

“Bad luck again. Sorry about that.” The dealer, a middle-aged man with a thin silver mustache tickling his upper lip, glanced inquiringly at Ethan. “Can I get you some more chips, sir?”

With force of will, Ethan pushed himself up. “No. Thank you—no.”

He stared at the table, focusing not on the sea of numbers but on the red and black squares at the edge of the felt nestled between the words EVEN and ODD. A fifty-fifty chance, and I still couldn’t win, not even once. The pain in his head increased, and his throat began to close.

He started to turn away from the table, but he glanced at the dealer as he left, remembering the nicety of a goodbye at the last second. His smile fell as he caught an expectant look in the dealer’s eye.

Oh God. The man wanted a tip.

Ethan flushed and patted his pockets, more for a stall than because he thought to find anything there. He looked up guiltily at the dealer. “I—I’m sorry—” He searched more desperately now, in case he had something, anything left. Not so much as a dime. “I don’t have anything.”

The dealer’s friendly, hopeful expression vanished. He rolled his eyes, shook his head and returned to stacking his chips.

Ethan faltered, feeling like more of a loser. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize—” Because I’m an idiot, a sorry, soppy idiot. He dug deep into his trousers then paused as he hit the bit of metal.

It wasn’t money, but once it had borne great, great value to Ethan. This little silver circle had been his everything, and now it was detritus in his pocket. The thought turned dark and bilious in Ethan’s wounded soul.

Ethan swallowed hard, pulled the object out and laid it on the table. “You can have this.” At least his voice didn’t break as he spoke the words.

The dealer leaned over and inspected it. “Is it real silver, or what?”

Ethan stared down at the plain gray circle with the simple engravings which had once brought him such comfort. Now they made him feel foolish. “I don’t know. Whatever it is, it’s yours.”

A hand came down on Ethan’s arm, weathered and stained with dark streaks as it closed over the discarded ring. A man stood beside Ethan, rangy and wild-looking with a head of shaggy hair and thick eyebrows. Sharp, dancing eyes met Ethan’s, and the stranger winked.

The dealer glared at the newcomer. “Hey—Jansen, you prick, that’s my tip.”

“It isn’t customary to give tips to a dealer when you do nothing but lose.” The stranger scooped up the ring, held it by the bottom of the circle and shook it once at the dealer. “Unless you’re a prick.”

The dealer’s face turned stormy. “He gave it to me, you ass.”

“First prick, now ass.” The stranger lifted an eyebrow. “You coming on to me, Tyler?”

The confrontation made Ethan uncomfortable. “I don’t mind if he takes it.”

Those dark eyes pierced him, and Ethan felt as if he were being stripped right there in the middle of the casino floor, laid more completely bare than ever in his life. As if he were being measured, parceled out and judged. And found, he suspected, very wanting.

The stranger turned to the dealer.

“Tell you what, Tyler.” The man’s voice was smooth as velvet but with a knife inside. “Let’s play for it.”

The dealer swore under his breath.

The stranger ignored him and leaned over the roulette table, his palms resting on the padded edge. “I’ll let you pick the game.”

The dealer stopped scowling. “Seriously?”

Ethan was done being ignored. “Excuse me, but who are you, exactly?”

“Randy Jansen. So. Tyler. You feeling lucky?”

The dealer looked hopeful. “Any game. You’ll bet against me in any game on the floor?”

“Anywhere in the casino.” Randy nodded at the main floor and smiled darkly. “Any game.”

Tyler drew back. “The fuck I’m playing poker against you.”

“Then name something else.”

Enough was enough. “This is hardly necessary. I gave the man my ring of my own free will.”

Randy still didn’t look at Ethan. “And now he’s going to bet against it of his own free will.”

Any game,” Tyler repeated.

Randy stood straight and held out his hands, indicating his complete compliance.

Tyler pointed to the wheel. “Roulette.”

Randy shrugged. “Fine.”

He said this, but he didn’t seem happy, and Tyler was beaming. “Put it down and make your call. Red or black.”

Randy raised an eyebrow. “What about the zeroes?”

“We re-spin if they fall there. Or we split the odds. I get single, you get double.”

“No. Even or odd. And the zeroes are even.”

“You can’t pick even.” Tyler pointed at the table. “Not when you just gave it a two-number advantage.”

Ethan frowned. “But zero is even. And so is double zero.”

Tyler aimed a finger at him. “You stay out of this.” He turned to Randy. “Zeroes are out. They’re nobody’s.”

Randy almost looked bored, except for the focused concentration in his eyes. “They have to go somewhere because I’m only making one bet with you.”

Tyler glared at Randy then flicked a glance at Ethan. “Him. He gets both zeroes. If it lands on one of them, it returns to him.”

“Sounds fair to me.” Randy indicated the wheel. “Spin.”

Tyler hesitated, as if he suspected anything Randy readily agreed to would be an arrangement against himself.

Ethan saw a tall man in a tuxedo and an earpiece watching them carefully from a few tables over. “Are we going to get into some sort of trouble for this?”

Tyler followed Ethan’s gaze and winced. “Shit. Pit boss. Hold on, Jansen. We’re clearing this with Herod first.”

“Trust me. Herod is watching our every move.” He sat in the chair Ethan had vacated and nodded at the wheel as he let Ethan’s ring fall onto the felt. “Let the ball fly, and get this over with.”

Tyler spun the ball into the rotating wheel, and it traveled around and around, moving in opposition to the swirl of colors.

Randy leaned closer to Ethan. He still wasn’t looking at him, but Ethan knew he wasn’t speaking to anyone else when he said, “If I win, you’re having a drink with me at the bar.”

Ethan wanted to tell him what he could do with his drink, but something about the spinning ball stayed him. “And if the dealer wins?”

“Oh, then you’re having two.”

Ethan glared at him. “And what if I win?”

“Then I’ll let you decide how many.”

“What if I don’t want to have a drink with you at all?”

On the wheel, the ball began to bounce. Randy had tracked it, eagle-eyed, but at Ethan’s question his lips quirked, and that searing gaze was on his. “Then I suggest you think of what else you have to bargain with to win your way out of a trip to the bar.”

Randy returned his focus to the wheel, but Ethan stared, rattled, at the man’s arrogant head. There had been a knowing on Randy Jansen’s face going beyond arrogance. As Ethan huffed, trying to convince himself he’d imagined it, he felt a warm, brief touch on the back of his thigh. Startled, he looked down in time to see Randy’s hand falling casually to his side.

“You—” Ethan started, but there was a soft click as the ball fell into place. Randy smiled at the same moment Tyler swore.

“18.” Randy turned to Ethan, his smile tilting to rueful as he added, “Red.”

“You son of a bitch.” Tyler glared at Randy. “You rigged this.”

Randy gave him a withering look. “How, Tyler, did I rig your wheel?”

“I don’t know how, but I know you did, goddamn it.”

The pit boss, who’d watched the entire game from just a table away, stepped forward. “Is there a problem?”

“He’s cheating.” Tyler pointed at Randy.

Randy looked innocently at the pit boss. “I think your dealer could use a break. But ask him to place the dolly first, please.”

The pit boss frowned at Ethan’s ring lying on the table, but as he opened his mouth to speak, he paused before pressing fingers to his earpiece. “Hold on,” he said to the table, fixing his gaze on a random point as he listened, nodding occasionally. “Yes, Mr. Crabtree.” He turned to Tyler. “The play is fair. Place the dolly, dealer.”

Tyler’s face was red. “He’s cheating—”

“—and then report directly to the office. Mr. Crabtree’s assistant would like a word with you.”

The color drained from Tyler’s face.

The pit boss nodded again at the table. “Place the dolly, please.”

Hand shaking, Tyler moved the gold marker from the rail edge in front of him to the number 18.

Randy swiped the ring from the felt and stood, reaching into his pocket. He pulled out two blue-edged chips, passing one to the pit boss, flicking the other onto the table. “Have a good night, Tyler.” He turned to Ethan, and in front of the now-considerable crowd watching them, slipped his arm through the crook of Ethan’s own.

Too shocked to resist, Ethan let Randy maneuver him down the line of tables toward a series of archways beneath a glittering chandelier. As the crowd thinned out and they passed beneath a dark curve into a room lined with slot machines, the spell Randy had cast at the table broke, and Ethan pulled away.

“I’m not having a drink with you. I don’t know who you are, but I do know I don’t have to have a drink with you.”

He expected Randy to fight him, or mock him, or even, given the way this was headed, try to seduce him. But as if Randy could read his mind and wanted to make sure he thwarted him, he didn’t do anything Ethan expected. He held up his hands and smiled ruefully.

“You’re right.” He bowed and turned away.

For a second, Ethan could only stare. Randy ambled off, past the video poker machines, sauntering to the entrance of the bar attached to the casino.

Ethan could leave. He could be rid of this idiot once and for all.

The vision of his alternate future burned hot and dark and short, and Ethan went still.

Something else rose up through that bleakness, something as black as the mark on the table which had never, not even once, gone Ethan’s way.

Tightening his fists, and his jaw, Ethan glared. “Hey,” he called, and when Randy didn’t stop or glance over his shoulder, he swore under his breath and stormed after him.

 


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