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FIRST CHAPTERS

HARD17
David Whelan

We take a very dim view of any and all forms of cheating.

Part 1

She glances over the contents of her black Prada back-pack. The bag gapes open, deflated on the dark shine of the granite table top.
Spread out next to it are her tools, her needs of Vegas life. The black leather wallet, Amex, Visa and membership cards spread by it, her tiny silver cellphone, separated from it's battery, her black bound note book and pens, make-up bag and change purse, Cosmo, and her Mexican silver eagles head money-clip with the deep lapis eye, clasping a healthy fold of crisp American bills. Next to these, reflecting in the dark surface, are four nice, neat stacks of black-rimmed, hundred-dollar chips.
The green glass light shade over Melanie's head leaves Cardoza sitting practically in shadow behind the table. The two dark-skinned burlys standing behind him in the shadows haven't moved or spoken since they escorted her in. One, black, with dreadlocks and built like a pick-up truck in a suit, the other just big and dark brown, Asian looking, black hair trimmed short and shiny. The place smells of new leather and wood polish. Cardoza's snakskin smooth voice echoes a little in the cool of the hard, dark room.
"You have a lot of our money, Ms Karim," She peers through her coated shades to see him clearly, but she won't take them off. They provide some small defence, at least.
"You play regularly here, and in our club in London. Mostly you come out even, but you often walk away with a healthy profit and hardly ever a loss." He looks at her for a tight moment, then reaches into a drawer under the large desk. She hears the drawer slide closed and he puts a large cigar on the black granite desktop in front of him.
"Maybe, Ms Karim, you are simply a very good blackjack player. We're naturally always happy to welcome winners." He waits for her to react. She doesn't. He rolls the cigar backwards and forwards under his hand, slowly. Towards her, towards him.
She waits. There was no telling where this would go, but she wouldn't gain by rushing it along.
"Over the last, what is it, six weeks? You've taken about twenty thousand dollars of our money." "After I've won it, it stops being yours, doesn't it?"
"Of course it does," he smiles a thin, bankers smile. He says, "Assuming that you have won it fairly." His eyes sadden, "In this business, alas, there are always people who want to tip the odds in their favour. Ah, the lengths some people will go, to tilt an honest game. To subvert it." Rolling the cigar some more, he looks straight at her and says, "To cheat, Ms Karim. We take a very dim view of any and all forms of cheating." He stops rolling and waits again.
"Are you accusing me, Mr Cardoza? That would be rather serious, wouldn't it?" One more roll, forwards then back, then it stops. His voice even softer, "Very serious, Ms Karim."
She fights the itchy urges to touch her hair or shift on the seat. She sits like marble.
He says, "People cheat in such ingenious ways. You have to admire it, in a way. They use technology. Players have come wearing incredibly small, thin computers. Under clothing, in the soles of their shoes, even under hairpieces." Rolling again, while he pauses.
"We wonder if you would object to our satisfying ourselves with a search."
The burly with the locks on Cardoza's right shifts to an 'at-ease' position.
She said, "Well, you already looked through my bag," She looks hard at him through the shades. Can he see her eyes? It doesn't matter.
The silk of her stockings rustles softly as her legs cross, "And I'm not wearing anything that you can't see," and she gives them all a moment for it to sink in, "so I think that searching me might give you a little more satisfaction than the situation would indicate was strictly necessary. I'm sure you'd agree, Mr Cardoza." She felt the timing was beat-perfect. Small bluff, understated, move on.

She leans forward a little, and in a reasonable, businesslike tone, says, "I'm not cheating you, I'm playing as straight a game as you are. If you really can't stand me winning, I can play somewhere else. But while I'm at the table and people see me win some, their bets seem to get a little friskier. I'm sure you have noticed. Especially the tourists. I don't know how much you actually profit from my playing here, but I'm sure it doesn't cost you anything. In the long run, it's good for your business when the punters see someone winning, isn't it?" she smiles, "and, you know, I don't see too many other players win steadily," a pause, "maybe it's just the nights that I'm here."

He settles back in his chair, and rolls the cigar some more. He seems to be thinking it over. He reaches into the drawer again and fetches out a cigar cutter. A small black guillotine with a round hole and a bright, shiny blade. He holds it between his thumb and forefinger, snapping the blade up and down.
He says, "I'm sorry, Ms Karim," and looks up at her, "I haven't asked you," another pause while he picks up the cigar in his left hand, "would you like something to drink?" "Lagavulin, thanks. With a splash of water." she gives him a small, easy smile, "Was that what you wanted to ask?"
"No," The Asian burly goes back to a table in the corner. Still looking at her, Cardoza says, "Make it two, Hari. I'll have mine straight."
Hari brings two large tumblers and a small water jug on a silver tray, which he puts on the table. Then he resumes his station behind Cardoza's chair. Melanie slowly crosses her legs the other way.
Without looking up she can see that Hari and the other burly are fiercely not watching. At the swish of the silk, they both clear their throats and swallow.
She sees that there is water in one of the whiskies, and she takes the tumbler. Cardoza lifts the other. He tilts his glass towards her and says, "Crime," They both take a drink.
She savours the whisky, dancing spicy and peaty on her tongue for a couple of seconds, then the golden warmth wakes her throat, and spreads down.
She says, "I love these island malts. Soft and smoky." He says, "I know a lot of aficionados swear that they come through better with water, but I can't bear to dilute it."
"I know what you mean. They are really at their best with Scottish spring water, though."
"I heard that. I mean to visit Scotland. I'd very much like to play at St Andrews."
"A good walk spoiled, Mr Cardoza. But at least, in St Andrews, it is a real walk." They both sip some more whiskey.

"Ms Karim," he pauses. Perhaps he was waiting for her to invite him to call her 'Melanie.' How quaint. She doesn't. He goes on, "I have to make a choice." Now both the burlys stand with their hands clasped in front of them. She rolls her glass and watches the low amber sparkle.
He says, "You may know that we consider what's known as 'card counting' to be a form of cheating," She waits for him to go on, "I could simply ask you not to return to our casinos. That would be a shame," She agrees, "For now, I'm inclined to take a chance, and to take you at your word. You tell me that you are not cheating," He picks up the cigar cutter again, "and I shall accept your assurance. I very much hope that you will not prove me wrong," the cutter snaps, and the blunt top of the cigar flops onto the desk, "And I hope that your luck continues." He lights the cigar, puffing until a curtain of heady blue smoke drifts and eddies between them.

Carlo was shuffling and spreading cards across the turquoise baize of the empty blackjack table, waiting for players. He saw Miss Karim step into the dimly coloured lights of the casino floor, her bag over her right shoulder. Black bag, short mop of black hair, little black dress, black stockings, tall black pointed shoes and a little, high-waisted black leather jacket, all black except for silver chains around her neck and waist, the only colour was the iridescent blue coating on her sunglasses. She was reflected in the gold-tinted mirror walls, through the Las Vegas mood music of tuneless electronic chords and metal clatter in the aisles of flashing slots, as she steered straight for Carlo's table.
"Hey, Carlo," she said, taking the chair at his far right. From her bag she neatly stacked three short piles of five chips, and one of just two. Carlo offered her the decks, and she cut, about two-thirds of the way into the stack. He popped the decks into the plastic shoe, gave her a smile back and started to deal.
She dropped one hundred dollars on each of fifteen successive hands.
That must have been some kind of a record. She bet when the count was way into minus numbers. She even hit a hard seventeen and bust. Then, holding one chip up for the eye-in-the-sky cameras she said, "One for the boys, Carlo." A tip was money from home on a dead night like this. Even better, Miss Karim almost never lost when she toked him. She put the last two chips out next to each other. He dealt her a ten of diamonds, a face-down card to himself and smiled as he turned an ace of spades to her.
He smiled and said, "Black Jack. Thank you, Miss Karim," and he passed her a hundred and a fifty, taking the same for himself, plus the hundred she had toked. Ten minutes work for a two-hundred and fifty dollar tip. "Thanks, Carlo," she smiled as she got up to leave.

Carlo signalled the pit boss to log his tip. Mikey nodded to him and made straight for Miss Karim.
"You're leaving," Mikey had on his disappointed face as he took her hand in both of his, "not a lucky night, Miss Karim?" "I don't know, Mikey. Depends how you look at it."
"It's my break, now. Let me buy you a drink, Miss Karim and we can consider ways to look at it."
"I'd love that, Mikey, but I have to go. I promised a friend I'd meet them and I'm already late,"
"Ah, so sorry, Miss Karim. Another time."
The house rules wouldn't let Mikey join her for a drink even if he really wanted to. Which he probably did. He didn't make that much effort for most of the punters, unless some business required it. If she accepted his invitation, as she had occasionally, he would seat her and get drinks for them both. Then after a very few moments polite chit-chat, he would snare her some interesting company, before making an excuse and one of his charming retreats. All very agreeable, but not tonight. Upstairs in the screen nest, Cardoza and Hari watched as Melanie Karim moved silently through the tables from four different angles.
When she reached the edge of the casino floor, she turned her face up to the last camera and gave them a wave.
Cardoza made smoke with the cigar.

© David Whelan November 2002
dwny@mindspring.com

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