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When Tony Valentine, a master at catching casino cheaters, jets to Las Vegas to look for his missing son, he lands in the middle of a dangerous turf war between rival casinos. Valentine’s longtime pal then taps him to figure out how an amateur won $25,000 at his blackjack tables. But the job is full of land mines. For starters, the suspect bears a strong resemblance to his late wife. Upping the ante, a dead stripper is found with Valentine’s calling card–and her grief-stricken policeman boyfriend is vowing revenge.
Yet in a city where barracudas wear pinstripes, and reality and illusion shift depending on the neon light, a greater threat maneuvers through the streets: an all-new breed of criminal with an agenda propelled by fury that will shake not only Valentine, but the city of Las Vegas itself.
About the Author
JAMES SWAIN is the bestselling author of Grift Sense, Funny Money, Sucker Bet, and Mr. Lucky, and is considered an authority on crooked gambling and casino scams. He lives in Odessa, Florida, with his wife, Laura, where he is currently at work on his seventh Tony Valentine novel.
Visit his Web site at www.jimswain.com.
Read an Excerpt
The most desirable women in Las Vegas didn’t live there. They lived in southern California and worked as dental hygienists, aerobic instructors, and nurses. They lived regular, nine-to-five lives. Then, on the weekend, they flew to Las Vegas—usually on Southwest, because it had the most flights—got off the plane, and became different people. Their names changed, and so did their hairstyles and their clothes. It was as if a magic wand had been waved over them, although the change was anything but magical.
They became strippers in the gentlemen’s clubs that hung on the periphery of the Las Vegas Strip. They paid the club owners two hundred bucks a night and made the money back in twenty minutes from drunken men wanting a friction dance. On a good night, they took home a grand.
It wasn’t that these women were more beautiful than the women who lived in Las Vegas. Vegas was filled with knockouts. What made them different was that they weren’t used to being treated like garbage, which was how most women in Vegas got treated. No, these women still had dreams. They lived in la-la land, and it came through on their faces every time they smiled.
Her name was Kris, and she danced at the Pink Pony.
Lieutenant Pete Longo of the Metro Las Vegas Police Department had met Kris while responding to a call about a fight. Normally, he would have let a uniform deal with it, only the prospect of seeing naked women dancing against a backdrop of sporting events projected on a colossal screen had propelled him into action. That, and not having to see his wife for another hour.
The fight was between a drunk and a bouncer, and it was over Kris. The drunk was a big, corn-fed kid from the Midwest who’d trapped Kris in a VIP booth. She was naked save a G-string and looked scared out of her wits. Petite, blond hair, great figure, and her own breasts. Not the prettiest woman he’d ever seen, but damn close.
Longo had acknowledged her with a thin smile. Then he’d tried to arrest the drunk. The drunk had responded by spitting on him.
Longo was pretty fat. His mother called him chubby, but that was his mother. Beneath the flab was some real muscle. In the gym, he could bench-press his weight. Most guys his size couldn’t do that. And he knew how to fight.
He knocked the drunk out with two punches. It had impressed the hell out of the bouncer, an African American kid whose Italian suit had gotten torn in the scuffle. And it had impressed the gaggle of patrons and strippers standing nearby. But who it impressed the most was Kris.
“Ohhh,” she’d squealed as the Midwest Mauler fell.
Longo made the bouncer sit on him. Then he’d taken off his jacket and draped it over Kris’s shoulders.
“You okay?” he asked.
She closed the jacket around her and nodded her head.
“Did he hurt you?”
She shook her head. “That was really cool,” she said.
“What’s your name?”
“Starr,” she said.
“Your real name.”
That had gotten her. The hint of a smile crossed her lips. “Kris.”
“You’re not from around here, are you?” he said.
That had been six weeks ago. Pulling into the driveway of Kris’s townhouse in his brand-new Ford Explorer, Longo found himself shaking his head. It felt like they’d known each other six years. Every time they’d gotten together—every single encounter—had been the stuff dreams were made of. Beeping his horn, he looked expectantly at the front door.
A minute passed. He rolled down his window and sucked in the brisk desert air. It was early April, his favorite time of year. Warm days, cool nights; perfect sleeping weather. He tapped his horn again.
When she didn’t come out, he slipped out of the SUV. The garage door was open, his old Mustang convertible sitting in the space. He’d given it to Kris so she’d have wheels on the weekends. He’d concocted an elaborate story for his wife, only she’d never asked him what he’d done with the car. Too happy with the new Ford Explorer, he guessed.
Cindi was funny that way. Since their marriage had gone on the rocks, she had stopped questioning where the money was coming from. They went on nice vacations twice a year, drove new cars, and had money in the bank. All on his crummy detective’s salary.
The front door was locked, and he trudged around back. Taking the spare key out of the flowerpot, he unlocked the back door. He waited expectantly for the alarm’s piercing whine. When it didn’t sound, he went in.
“Hey, Kris, it’s me. They stop serving breakfast at nine. We need to hurry.”
Still no answer. Probably in the bathroom, doing her hair. Kris looked like a cheerleader when she wasn’t stripping. She was a stickler about keeping the place clean, and he slipped off his shoes and padded silently into the living room.
Right away he knew something was wrong. The air smelled funny, and he spied a half-smoked cigarette lying on the glass coffee table. Kris had flown in the night before and called him from the club. Said she was going to dance until three am, then go to the townhouse. He was to pick her up at eight thirty for breakfast. A simple plan, although he now realized that someone had come home with her.
Lifting his eyes, he stared at the hallway that led to her bedroom. Were they in there, sound asleep?
He took a deep breath. Being a cop twenty years, he’d come to know the seven deadly sins pretty well. Betrayal was the worst. It shattered everything you held to be true, and was as damaging as a bullet to the flesh.
He cracked her bedroom door and peeked inside. Kris lay beneath a leopard-skin blanket, eyes shut, her wheat-gold hair displayed luxuriously on a pillow. His heartbeat quickened. Every time he saw her, he felt like a high school senior with his life stretched out before him, not some fat, forty-five-year-old bozo with two kids and a wife he couldn’t stand.
Longo opened the door fully and stared at the bathroom door. Was her friend with the cigarette in there? His eyes canvassed the room and spotted Kris’s clothes folded neatly on a chair. It was a little ritual she performed whenever they made love. It always made him smile.
Her eyelids remained shut. He stepped into the room. His instinct told him to check the bathroom first, and his heart told him to check her. His instinct won out, and he kicked the bathroom door open. Empty.
He sat on the edge of the bed. It was a motionless water bed, so comfortable that they’d once slept for ten hours straight. He looked down at her. The color was draining from her face, her exquisite features turning hard.
He didn’t want to believe she was gone, his heart winning out over his instincts. He lifted the blanket with the tip of his finger and saw where the bullet had entered her body, and taken her life.
Her killer had been kind. He’d shot her through the heart, and he guessed she’d died instantly. Lowering the blanket, he rose from the bed, looked at the ceiling, and tried not to sob.
Only one thing to do. Get in the Explorer and burn rubber. He couldn’t be caught here. He looked down at her a final time.
“I love you so much,” he whispered.
Putting his shoes on in the kitchen, Longo stared at a pair of socks sitting on the table. He’d left the socks here last weekend. In typical Kris-fashion, she’d washed and folded them. As he picked up the socks, the words Oh, no, escaped his mouth.
How many more of his things were in the townhouse? And what about his fingerprints? They were probably on every doorknob and light fixture. And Kris’s phone bills, the investigating detectives would surely look at those. All trails would lead directly back to him.
He pulled a chair out from the table and dropped his massive bulk into it. He was about to become a suspect in a murder investigation. The detectives in charge would not be his friends. They would look at his lifestyle, questioning his expensive vacations and the new cars he bought every year. What was he going to tell them? That he found a bag of money behind a casino?
Or would he tell them about the department’s secret slush fund, and how money was being siphoned from the bank accounts of well-known wise guys. The wise guys weren’t shouting about it, knowing a bribe when they saw one.
He couldn’t do that. That would be suicide.
He would lie about the money.
“Jesus Christ,” he said aloud.
He’d get thrown off the force, and Cindi would surely leave him. His teenage daughters would shun him, and his parents wouldn’t be too thrilled, either. His life was about to be ruined. And all because he’d gone and fallen in love.
Standing, he slid the chair beneath the table. The leg hit something soft, and he looked beneath the table and saw a black gym bag. The bag was open and stuffed with casino chips from several different casinos. He pulled it out and let his fingers run through the chips. Reds, greens, purples, and yellows. There was even a brown chip. You didn’t see those very often.
He blew his cheeks out. There was twenty grand here, easy. This was worse than bad. He couldn’t explain this. And if there was any part of the story the investigators would want explained, it was why twenty grand in casino chips was in Kris’s townhouse.
Zipping the bag closed, he saw a sliver of paper tucked in a side pocket. He pulled it free. It was an embossed business card, and he stared at the raised lettering.
Grift Sense International Gaming Consultant Tony Valentine, President 727/591-5115
Table of Contents
A Conversation with James Swain, author of Loaded Dice
Q: Your hero, Tony Valentine, lives and works in Florida, as you do. He's an expert in the gambling world, as you are. He's also an ex-cop, which you're not. In what other ways is Tony most like and unlike James Swain?
A: I'm often asked if Valentine is my alter ego, which he is not! Valentine doesn't gamble (I do), doesn't drink (I enjoy an occasional beer), and thinks hustlers are slime (I have several good friends who are hustlers). The one thing I share with my main character is a passion for understanding how people are cheated, and exposing it.
Q: Where did this passion come from?
A: I was raised in a household where lying and cheating were not tolerated. Having the amount of knowledge I do about this subject, I realized I'd be doing people a favor by exposing hustlers' methods.
Q: One thing about Tony that's a welcome change from a lot of male detective heroes is that he's believably his age. Not just mentally, but physically. Tony is capable of heroics, but his body pays a price. How were you able to get inside not only the head but the body of an older character so convincingly?
A: When I first started writing these books, Valentine was a minor character whom I based upon several older gentlemen I knew (including my father). He had his own voice, and I simply wrote down his feelings and thoughts. It was my wife's idea that he should be my main character.
Q: So she gets 50% of your earnings?
A: No, she gets 100%! The real motivation behind Valentine comes from a comment myfather made a few years ago. I asked my dad how he liked being retired, and he said, "I don't count anymore." In a way, Valentine is always trying to prove that he still does count, even though he often pays a price.
Q: Are the various scams in your books actual scams that people have used? How do you find out about them? And have you ever gotten into trouble for publicly exposing them, either from cops or criminals?
A: The scams in my books are real, and used by hustlers and cross roaders throughout the world. I became interested in the world of cheaters in 1987, when I saw a man switch a hand at blackjack at the Golden Nugget casino in Las Vegas. After that, I started collecting scams, and through my contacts in the magic world, meeting hustlers in the hope that they would educate me. So far, no one has taken exception to my exposing their methods. Magicians like to say that the best way to hide something is to put it into print. I think this also applies to cheating.
Q: What's a cross roader, and how does a cross roader differ from a hustler?
A: A cross roader is a person who specializes in ripping off casinos. The expression comes from the Old West practice of cheating at saloons that were located at the crossroads of one-horse towns.
Q: What does it take to be a successful con man, besides good luck? Who is the most successful con man you've personally known?
A: I think I could write a book answering your question. But here's a short version. Luck rarely comes into a play with a con. Being a con man requires a thorough understanding of human nature and human greed. W. C. Fields's expression "You can't cheat an honest man" is at the core of any good con. And a con man must be willing to spend long hours (sometimes weeks or even months) to execute a successful con. Planning is everything. The most successful con man I've ever met must remain anonymous. He got out of the rackets and now runs a successful business.
Q: Has organized crime been eradicated from the world of casino gambling in the United States, as the casinos like to claim?
A: Yes. The mob no longer has any ties to casino gambling in this country.
Q: How can someone like me, with no expertise in gambling, much less cons, be sure that I'm not getting ripped off in a casino? Or should I resign myself to losing a set amount and just have a good time?
A: Never go into a casino expecting to lose! Or accept that you might be cheated. Here's how to protect yourself on both fronts. First, gamble in a casino where there is state regulation. Nevada, New Jersey, and other states with legal casinos provide excellent safeguards for players, and make sure the games are legitimate. Try to avoid casinos that are not regulated by states, such as cruises to nowhere, and out-of-the-way Indian casinos. Second, learn the games before you go. You can win-especially at blackjack and craps-but you need to have a thorough understanding of the rules and percentages before you play.
Q: When you walk into a casino, what games do you play? Do you usually exit a winner? Have you been banned from any casinos?
A: My favorite game is blackjack (I haven't had a losing session in many years). I was banned from a casino in Puerto Rico when I asked the dealer to count the cards in a blackjack shoe. The casino was cheating (the shoe was short), and I was shown the door.
Q: Did your knowledge of scams, and especially scams involving card handling, teach you any tricks as a writer?
A: My knowledge of scams has certainly helped me understand human nature and the criminal mind. It has also helped me tremendously when it comes to plotting my books. Good scams are entertaining to the people that are being ripped off. The same is true of a good book.
Q: I believe you originally became interested in card handling as a boy fascinated with magic tricks. How did a boyhood interest in magic lead you into the world of gambling and con artists?
A: The world of card magic and gambling are parallel; many of the top hustlers are also terrific card magicians. Over the years, I brushed elbows with many hustlers and incorporated their techniques into my own performances.
Q: It seems as though a lot of con artists really do believe they are ethically entitled to whatever they can get away with.
A: You are one hundred percent correct. Con artists and hustlers do believe they are entitled to whatever they can steal. They also believe that everyone cheats in one way or another. And, if you're one of those rare individuals who doesn't cheat, then you're a sucker, and deserve whatever happens to you.
Q: What's next for Tony Valentine . . . and James Swain?
A: I am currently working on the fifth Tony Valentine book, Mr. Lucky, which will be followed by a sort of pre-quel novel called Candy Store.
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