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Desert Companion

At the Whiskey River: An excerpt from H. Lee Barnes

At the Whiskey RiverIn H. Lee Barnes’ new novel “Cold Deck,” protagonist Jude is a longtime casino dealer who’s seen his share of Las Vegas history — in fact, he barely survived the deadly MGM fire in 1980. Now Jude is still barely surviving: More than two decades later, he’s still at the tables, a tired, middle-aged divorcé trying to be a good father to his children while struggling with crushing debt. After losing his job and totaling his car in an accident, Jude finally gets a lucky break. A friend offers to help him get another job, and Jude jumps at the chance — but soon realizes that what seems to be a fresh start is part of a complex casino cheating plot. In this excerpt, Jude participates in the scam for the first time.

 “Cold Deck” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available on its website at or at


A floorman, no more than twenty-five, cut an eye at the game and told Dean to change it up. The young boss was stuck watching five games, four of them busy. Dean’s face strained from concentration as he shuffled and stripped the deck. He nearly fumbled one strip.

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Angel turned his head, faked a cough and whispered, “This is Jake.”

Confident now we could pull it off, I laid two chips in the betting circle. I would follow the plan, start small, build up bets — the goal a thousand dollars, then walk. If someone wises up, grab the checks and hustle out, but don’t run. As Dean offered the deck for a cut, Patty Lane eased down on first base. She leaned forward and placed a twenty-dollar bill in the betting circle.

Dean’s eyes snapped in her direction. “You want the money to play, ma’am?”

“What does that mean?” she asked.

“Do you want to bet the whole twenty?”

“Do I have to?”

She’s got him on the hook, I thought. I had to wonder myself if it was an act or if she was sincere. In either case, she was ideal bait to reel him in.

“No, ma’am.”

She looked at the two-dollar-minimum sign and said, “Oh, I see. Just ... two dollars.”

“I’ll change it up for you.”

She smiled up at him. “Thanks.”

Intent as he was on estimating Patty Lane’s cup size, Dean failed to case the layout before pitching the cards. His delivery wasn’t graceful, but he managed to get the cards to all of us. I held my first card face up, a six, so Angel could see it. He flashed his discreetly — a five. We’d likely go for an eleven to make the hand or double down if Dean showed a three through a seven. Angel’s second card was a nine, mine an eight. Dean’s up card was a seven. I pinned the six underneath my chips and laid the eight on top. Patty Lane leaned forward so that her breasts pressed together. She exposed her cards, two queens. “Should I split these?” she asked.

That was all the distraction Angel needed. His hand whisked over the felt. He snatched up my eight and simultaneously dropped the five, the exchange so smooth even I couldn’t see it. I turned over my cards and matched my bet. Dean, entranced by Patty Lane’s tan cleavage, was still explaining the risk of splitting tens. The man playing the middle, also mesmerized, pinned his cards under the money without looking at them. The floorman, eyes wide, glanced at Patty Lane, looked away at another game, then back at her. Dean, the floorman, the man in the middle seat, all of them rendered hormone-dumb.

Angel took a card and stayed. The dealer pinned a card behind my bet, wished me good luck, and turned over his hole card. He had a seventeen and seemed pleased that he did. His eyes straying toward Patty Lane, he exposed my double-down card, a nine. He nearly knocked the chips over as he paid off my bet. He pushed with Angel, then turned over the cards of the man in the center spot and looked around as if seeking a witness.

When he gathered his wits, Dean said, “Did you know you stayed on a nine, sir?”

The man grinned meekly. “It’s a new strategy.”

Dean locked up the man’s bet and moved to Patty Lane.

“Guess we know what you got.” He smiled and paid her.

As Dean turned over Patty Lane’s hand, an unexpected sensation took a grip on me. Blood rushed to my head, then drained away an instant later. My pulse slowed. The bells and buzzers coming from the slots, the subdued roar of human voices, and all the blended other noise that so defines a casino seemed to diminish. I looked about and saw objects with the kind of acuity I’d had as a teenager.

“You should be betting more,” the man in the center seat said to Patty Lane.

“And you should have taken a hit.” Patty Lane looked up at Dean. “Should I bet more?”

“Ma’am, I can’t say.”

She looked at Angel, then me. “What do you two think?”

“I’m betting more,” Angel said. “Dean here is our lucky dealer.” He put another five on his hand and another dollar bet out for Dean. “We’re pressin’, my man.”

The con proceeded just as Ben had mapped it out. I bumped my bet to thirty. I won five more hands, then reduced the bet and lost it intentionally. In setting up my hand, Angel often improved his own. Even Patty Lane was making money.

A few hands later the floorman came over, introduced himself to each player. He asked if we’d like drinks. Ben had advised me not to worry if a boss stood close to the table. The best way to detect a gypsy move was in the peripheral vision, from a distance. Nor did a boss expect anyone to cheat right under his nose.

I took a hit on a thirteen against the dealer’s nine and busted. The con couldn’t have been better timed. Dumb floorman, I thought, and said, “I’ll have a diet Coke.”

“I’ll get the girl.” The boss walked to the podium.

I bet fifty dollars and placed a five-dollar chip in front of the betting circle for Dean.

Little by little, it became easier. Angel had deft hands, and if there was an inkling we were being watched, we didn’t switch. I came to sense those times. When I caught a natural, I was strangely disappointed; I didn’t want to lose the rhythm of the move.

When Dean’s relief arrived to send him on break, I stood and asked the dealer to color me up, said my lucky dealer was leaving and that I’d had enough. The new dealer was a woman no more than 23. She seemed angry about my leaving. I exchanged reds and picked up three green and eight black checks. Eleven hundred seventy-five, a nice score.

“Think I’ll cash out too,” Angel said.

From buy-in to cash-out, the scam had taken thirty-two minutes. I folded eleven hundred in bills in my wallet and walked out into a world that seemed newly hatched. I’d committed a crime, but oddly I didn’t feel like a criminal. At a trash basket on Fremont I rid myself of the stale gum and glanced up through the light show at what had once been the Mint. The elevator was rising and I was on it, a 5-year-old again looking down, scared and elated.

A wall of clouds surrounded the Sheep Range. A dusk-like sky darkened the street and the air was cool. The storm was closing on the city. Anxious to tell Audie of our success, I picked up the pace and hurried to the car. Even if I had reservations about us, I wanted her to be proud of me for pulling it off. She was parked on the second floor of the Horseshoe, listening to an FM rock station.

I slid in, spread the wallet, and thumbed the bills. “All without a hitch. It was great.”

I intended to tell her that I’d been dead for twenty years, that I was thankful for today, but before I could, she reached over, changed the station, and said, “Should I be impressed?”

Just then Angel lumbered up to the back door, opened it, and sank into the seat. He reached over and patted my shoulder. “You did good, Jude.”

“Where’s Patty?” Audie asked.

“A Slow Sally. Probably still cashing out. No clue and she still won most of her bets. Maybe I’ll have her pick some teams for me. Hell, it’d probably be as good as my system.”

“Here she comes,” Audie said.

Patty Lane climbed in the back beside Angel and kissed him. She heard the music and said, “Ick. Find us some soft rock.”

I breathed in the heavy air, exhaled, and set the radio dial. Audie backed out, turned, and drove down the ramp. She took 4th Street to the freeway. Lightning sparked in the sky. Audie drove, eyes fixed on the road. Angel and Patty Lane held hands like high school kids. My pulse sounded at my temples. Not since the fire, I thought, not since then.

[HEAR MORE: H. Lee Barnes discusses writing about war experiences on "KNPR’s State of Nevada."]


Ben ushered us in, said that he was on the phone, refreshments waited in the den, and we knew how to make ourselves comfortable. Audie lagged behind, saying she had to use the toilet. Liverwurst sandwiches sat on a mahogany service tray. Liverwurst was exactly what I wanted. I poured a glass of mint tea. Angel and Patty Lane filled their plates with fruit.

I sat on the leather couch and bit into the sandwich. My imagination took off — a couch like this, marble floors, original art on walls. I considered the life money afforded people, envisioned a new one for myself, in which I could spoil my kids and I wouldn’t be just a two-second afterthought to dealers in a break room. Audie came in, laid her purse behind the blackjack table, and sank into a recliner. She drew her legs up, wrapped her arms around her knees, and stared out the window. Then a few second later, as if bitten, she sprang up, selected a cigar from Ben’s humidor, and said, “I’ll be on the patio.” On the way, she picked up Ben’s Tiffany lighter.

“Might rain,” I said.

She gave me a look that sliced into me. “I’m smart enough to come out of the rain.” She threw the door open and slammed it behind her.

“She’s got a nose full of somethin’,” Angel said after she was gone.

“It’ll stain her teeth,” Patty Lane said.

“What?” Angel asked.

“The cigar. Tobacco’s terrible on teeth.”

Angel gave Patty Lane a patient, loving look.

You’re either in or out, I thought. Now that I was in with Ben, was I out with Audie?

Ben entered and said he was pleased we’d helped ourselves. He asked where Audie was.

Angel said, “Outside.”

Ben poured a glass of fruit tea, cut a slice of cheddar, and stood nibbling it and sipping from the glass. Audie sat poolside, puffing slowly on the cigar. He said, “Eighty-dollar Havana. That should come out of her cut.” He stared off as if something weighty occupied his mind. After a few seconds, he turned to me. “I just got off the phone with an old acquaintance, Jude. I got a little present for you. You start dealing this week.”

I should’ve been pleased, and would have been if his present hadn’t been wrapped in such ominous paper. I looked outside at her. So, Audie, what now, I wondered, now that your friend owns part of me too? I was too wired to give much thought to what had gone down or my role in it. One important thing that escaped was that the proceeds we’d netted from the scam, when split five ways, wouldn’t put a dent into the lifestyles that Ben and Patty Lane enjoyed. If I’d thought on it, I would have realized that what had happened in the Whiskey River was never intended to be about money.

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