JOEY ran his fingers over the edge of the card, felt the slickness of its plastic coating, the sharp corners. He loved brand new playing cards: how they smelled, how clean they appeared, how crisp. He took a deep breath, careful to make sure the other players read it as a tell rather than the worry about the deception in which he was currently engaged. He felt a light tug on the card under the table. He let it go. Next to him, Connor talked to one of Rupert Sporich’s goons, Pete, another player in on the double-cross. Pride filled Joey. No one at the table would know that Connor had just taken a card from him. No one would be able to tell. They’d run this cheat so many times that it went off seamlessly. Still, he always felt nervous. Not necessarily over getting caught, but about what Connor would say or do if Joey was the reason they were exposed. He didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize his partnership with Connor. He sent up a prayer to the Virgin Mary, thanking her for making things go so well so far.
Why that was, Joey didn’t want to think about. Sure, he knew. He knew exactly why he stayed up late nights in the hotel room they shared, unable to sleep in his twin bed, staring at Connor across the small divide between them that seemed like a canyon. How many nights had he thought about crossing that divide, climbing into Connor’s bed, and confessing—no, showing—his feeling for the man? Too many to count. A band closed around his heart. He could never tell Connor how he really felt. The man would probably flatten him and leave him for dead. They certainly wouldn’t play cards together anymore.
Stay sharp, Josef, he told himself. He couldn’t let his unrequited love get the better of him now. He had to focus on the game, on the intricacies of the graft. A trickle of sweat rolled down his back. The small industrial garage where the game took place didn’t have air conditioning, but Joey knew the sweat didn’t come entirely from the heat.
Sporich had heard Joey and Connor knew how to play cards, but Joey figured he probably didn’t realize the entire truth. He’d brought them in to help take the big gull across the table for everything he was worth. Split it four ways, he’d said: Sporich, Pete, Connor, and Joey. Joey let his eyes move toward the two cowhide bags—Holstein hair on and everything—the dupe had thrown onto a couch. Supposedly they were full of unmarked fifties and hundreds. He didn’t doubt it, looking at the poser dressed all in white, like some kind of cliché comic-book cowboy. He’d come to Vegas on a private jet—he’d made sure everyone heard that—looking for a big game. A game bigger than could be found on the Strip.
Joey threw a few chips in the pot and returned to his musing. He didn’t think big rollers like this Dallas guy actually existed, ones with enough money and stupid enough to take part in a game like this. That only happened in movies.
He heard Connor spout off one of their cue phrases to Pete. Joey glanced at his watch. Thirteen seconds and he’d reach under the table, make some crass comment about scratching his balls, and take the card Connor would pass to him.
Their process seemed cliché, almost too simple to work, but it did, probably because they were as good actors as card players.
Joey reached under the table, found the card without fumbling, and then heard, “What are you guys doing? What’s go—Oh shit.”
Cherrie Dubel. Joey couldn’t hide his surprise as he turned to see her entering the room, the bright sun from outside streaming in around her. She held bags of burgers and a tray of drinks. The willowy blonde’s eyes had gone wide, and their focus landed right on the card, both Connor’s and Joey’s fingers still grasping it. Joey’s heart leaped into his throat. She’d caught their cheat.
“Oh shit,” Joey echoed quietly, and his gaze met Connor’s. Regret filled the big, ginger-haired ex-boxer’s eyes. This would ruin them. Connor glanced at Cherrie and shook his head.
“Oh shit,” she said again, and dropped the drinks. Shakes and sodas splattered all over the gray concrete floor. Joey heard chairs scraping back, but he couldn’t look at the others at the table. His eyes remained glued to the mess on the floor, the trails that the spilled drinks formed on the concrete.
“Ramirez!” Connor warned.
Joey turned to face him. Everyone else was standing. Sporich and Pete had guns drawn, one pointed at him, the other at Dallas. Connor had his hands up; Joey knew he didn’t carry a weapon to these games anyway. It would seem too suspicious.
“What the fuck is going on?” Dallas sputtered. He held his hands up too.
“What did you see, Cher?”
Joey closed his eyes and shook his head. She couldn’t lie to save her life, let alone his. He needed to start saying his prayers.
CONNOR watched Cherrie out of the corner of his eye; his focus stayed on Sporich. He’d liked the girl, and she wanted him despite the fact that Sporich claimed her. He didn’t have any feelings beyond wanting to protect her. He could have been her ticket away from the creep, but not now. God, I wish she were smarter than she looks. Too bad the dumb blonde stereotype was founded in reality.
Connor took a deep breath, working to steady his nerves. Advantage one, he didn’t have a gun pointed at him. Advantage two, Dallas looked like he might throw up. That could serve as a good diversion. Advantage three… hey, he was Connor Fahy.
“What is this shit?” he said, adopting the Boston tough-guy persona that everybody expected from him. Too bad he could only wear it like the black suit he had on, for show.
“You tell me, Fahy,” Sporich spat. “What did you see, Cherrie?”
Connor glanced back at Cherrie. She still held the paper bags in her white-knuckled fist. Soda and milkshake had splattered up her tanned legs and across the front of her red pencil skirt. She perched in her designer heels in the mess.
Lie for me, dammit, Connor thought, but he knew she couldn’t. Sporich would see right through.
“I didn’t see nothin’,” she said, but she could put no conviction behind it.
Connor grimaced, and looked back to Sporich.
They had a problem. Sporich had brought Connor and Joey in to work over Dallas, but now that Cherrie had outed them, Sporich would have to pretend like he didn’t know they had cheated. This little mishap would spoil his reputation as it was: cheaters could make it into his games. Either way, he was screwed, and either way, Connor and Joey would have to take the blame.
“Listen, Ruppie—” Cherrie said.
Connor looked back to her. She’d started toward the table, but slipped in the mess under her feet and hit the ground hard. Pete and Sporich lowered their weapons in shock, and Sporich ran to her aid. Got to admire the man’s chivalry. Connor saw it as his chance. He leveled a left hook across his body and hit Pete. A sickening crunch sounded as Pete’s head snapped back. The man hit the floor, his gun dropping, and then it slid against the wall.
“Come on, Joey,” Connor said. He headed toward the couch with the two cowhide satchels. He snatched them up and ran for the far side of the garage.
He heard footsteps behind him, and he prayed Joey followed.
Dallas was screaming, but for some reason he didn’t follow. Connor pulled up to the door and glanced back. Dallas had recovered Pete’s gun from the ground and was holding it. The weapon shook so badly, though, that Connor didn’t worry. Sporich knelt next to Cherrie, but he had his cell phone out. Connor knew he was summoning backup.
“We got to get out of here,” he told Joey as Joey joined him at the door.
A bullet hit the doorframe above their heads, pinging off the metal. Connor glanced back at Dallas. The man seemed to be crying.
“Now,” Connor said and pushed out into the slanting sunlight of late afternoon. Connor glanced up at the sky; he’d totally lost track of time in the windowless warehouse and half expected it to be dark when he emerged.
They ran across the parking lot to Joey’s car. Connor threw the bags through the open backseat window and jumped into the driver’s seat. Joey got into the passenger seat. Connor revved the car to life, jammed it into reverse, and peeled out of the parking lot. As they pulled away, he could see Sporich in the rearview mirror, raising his gun, but they had made it out of range.
OVER his shoulder, Ramirez watched the small, ramshackle industrial park where everything had gone to shit fade away behind him. Twilight descended, putting a curtain between him and the badness.
Then his gaze fell on the two bags on the backseat, and bile rose into his throat. Fear caused him to grit his teeth.
“We stole it,” was all he could force out through his clenched jaw.
Connor chuckled and started to shrug out of his suit coat as he drove. Joey leaned over and helped him.
“I mean, what the fuck, Con?” He pulled the jacket off Connor and tossed it over the bags in the backseat, so he didn’t have to look at them. He watched Connor. Connor’s focus stayed on the road.
“We were going to take it anyway,” he told Joey.
Joey shook his head. “Not like this. Cheating is… different. And not all of it either.” He didn’t want to think about what this would mean for them. Sporich would track them down, he felt certain, and most likely kill them. He’d never heard of Sporich killing someone directly, but there was a first time for everything, and they sure as hell just painted a couple of huge targets on their backs. “What are we going to do?”
“I know a place,” Connor said, a slight smile on his face as if he’d planned all this and he just now got to finally tell Joey. “Friend of mine has a ski cabin in Colorado. Remember when I left town a few months back?”
Joey nodded. He’d stewed in their rooms for the entire weekend, feeling sorry for himself that Connor hadn’t invited him along.
“We’ll be there by tomorrow afternoon.”
Joey scoffed. “And then what?” What good would it do to hold up in a cabin with several thousand dollars? Joey thought about his abuelita’s ranch in the mountains north of Mexico City. If he called the shots, they’d head there.
But he didn’t.
Connor did, and Joey did whatever Connor told him to do.
Because I love him, Joey admitted to himself, but he’d never be able to tell Connor. It would destroy their relationship.
“We’ll lay low, hope Sporich ends up with bigger fish to fry. Besides,” he grinned big in the gathering gloom, “Cherrie will try to talk Sporich out of following us. She’s got a thing for me.”
Joey huffed. He didn’t need to be reminded.
“Why don’t you try to get some sleep? We’ll switch drivers after a few hours.”
Joey leaned his head against the side window and watched the darkening desert as they headed northwest. Joey had liked Vegas, had liked the few friends they’d made. Had even loved the suite they lived in and his few possessions. Sure, they would have had to pull up stakes after a few good scores anyway, but it felt too soon to him.
He glanced sideways at Connor. At least they were still together.
© G.G. Royale
The New Game
Author: G.G. Royale
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Over the years, Josef Ramirez and Connor Fahy have run many cons to make their way in the world, but cheating at cards is their forte. One day, though, their scam is outed, and the two take off with the gangster they’ve robbed hot on their heels.
The stress of the run is too much for Joey, and feelings he’s been hiding from Connor for a long time bubble to the surface. Now he’ll find out if Connor will stick with him or go find a new game.