In the Cards

by Jamie Beck

CHAPTER ONE

Sugar Sands Beach Resort, Sanibel Island, Florida

New Year’s Eve 2005

Levi

Wild kids run around the pool, splashing passersby and banging against the ends of the lounge chairs. The noisy chaos is one thing I won’t miss about this place come Sunday. Some of the older folks look overwhelmed by the commotion, so I stop to help them secure seating, towels, and such. I may not hail from high society, but I’m still a Southerner with a sense of decorum.

An unruly little boy darts in front of me, nearly knocking the crate of glasses I’m carrying right out of my hands. Then I hear a familiar, heavy drawl that stops me cold.

“Better watch out, son.”

I glance to my left to see my pop grinning like a shark. And here I’d been looking forward to my last day of work.

“Pop.” I keep walking to the bar while I gather my wits. When I get there, I unload the glassware without giving him my full attention. “This is a surprise.”

“I bet.” He rests his right elbow on the bar and casually looks across the pool deck. “I was passing through the area and thought I’d come check on you.”

Passing through: a euphemism for running a string of card scams and long cons from Florida to Texas.

“Yeah?” I inhale slowly and shrug, trying not to reveal how much I wish he’d disappear before my coworkers get curious. “Well, as you can see, I’m just fine.”

“Fine?” He grunts and shakes his head. After glancing over his shoulder, he leans across the bar. “Making minimum wage and waiting on others? Come on, boy. I taught you better than this.”

He taught me, all right. Taught me how to play poker like a pro, among other things. Yanked me out of school in favor of getting me to master the finer points of body language, pacing, and position in the back rooms of bars across the South.

I don’t regret acquiring my talents, seeing as how they give me a distinct advantage in many situations. But I never want to live a drifter’s life and rip off people like my pop does. He may get a thrill from those games, but I don’t. And I don’t enjoy causing other people grief. It’s why I’ve been trying to make my own way.

Bottom line: I don’t care much about what other people think of me, but I need to be able to look in the mirror without disgust.

“How long are you going to waste your God-given talent and hide behind this bar?” The disapproving look on his face doesn’t surprise me. It doesn’t bother me, either.

“Don’t worry about me.” I ignore him and let my gaze drift over the crowd.

This job’s been a decent short-term gig for a guy my age. I’ve spent my time outdoors and collected healthy tips, especially from the middle-aged married ladies left to sit alone while their husbands play golf.

Besides, someday I’ll be one of those rich men on the golf course—minus the wife, of course. But there’s no need to share my plans for Vegas with Pop.

“Sorry to break up this family reunion, but I’ve got to get to work.” Placing both hands on the bar, I look him in the eye for the first time. “Can I fix you a drink before you head out?”

“Jack and Coke, son.” He chuckles and throws a twenty on the bar. “You keep the change. When you’re ready for a little fun, you know how to find me. You and I could clean up in this crowd of lonely ladies.” He winks and walks away, probably scoping the crowd for a new mark. At forty-eight, he’s still a good-looking man. I notice a few of the women check him out as he struts toward the hotel.

It’d be easier if I could hate him for how he raised me. But I don’t. He trained me not to rely on anyone for anything, and that makes me stronger than most. There are worse parents than him, even if he is an unrepentant thief.

As predicted, the outdoor bar is teeming with New Year’s Eve partiers before noon. The three of us tending bar barely have time to crack a joke. I don’t complain, though. Bigger crowds mean bigger tips.

Sara, a babe with a knockout figure, pockets most of the male customers’ money. Fortunately, John lacks any kind of charm, so he mostly serves the impatient men and women who want drinks and nothing more. I attract the flirty female patrons to my side of the bar. I wasn’t given much in this life, but I’m blessed with good looks—or so I’m told.

“I’ll take a banana daiquiri, please,” says a perky, wide-eyed brunette.

I’ve noticed her hanging around the pool all week. Up close her tawny eyes momentarily stop me in my tracks. Dazzling. Even in the bright sun, her pupils are fully dilated. Enlarged pupils are a sign of attraction or dishonesty. She’s either hot for me or underage, or both. Can be drugs, too, but this little girl don’t seem high.

“Miss, I need to see some ID.” I tuck a lock of my hair behind my ear and glance at the line forming behind her. I don’t want to lose those tips to John.

“Oh.” She bats her lashes and leans into the bar, offering me a better view of her cleavage. “I didn’t bring my wallet to the pool.”

Her form of foreplay is yet another excellent perk of my job. I admire the way she fills out her cherry-red suit before I meet her eyes again.

“I’m not askin’ for money, doll. I need proof of your age. I’d bet all my tips today you’re not twenty-one.”

“Am too.”

Her childish remark and refusal to meet my gaze only confirm my suspicion. Part of me admires her cheeky attitude. Hell, she’s damn cute. Under other circumstances she might tempt me to break a rule or two, but I won’t risk getting fired today.

Unwilling to waste more time or lose paying customers, I fix her a virgin daiquiri and charge her room. She beams, apparently thinking she’s fooled me into serving her alcohol, and throws a generous tip on the bar. As she struts her string-bikinied bottom away from me, I notice her sip her beverage and then stop midstride. Scowling, she turns to protest, but I’m busy with other customers. Drawing the left side of my mouth upward, I wink at her.

Accepting defeat, she skulks away, which causes me to chuckle. Nice try, little girl. Returning my attention to my other customers, I plaster a smile on my face and tend to a fetching blonde.

At five o’clock, I break for dinner. Thankfully, Pop seems to have vanished as quickly as he’d arrived. Now I can enjoy an hour of sun on the beach with my burger and book before setting up for tonight’s big New Year’s Eve party.