I pitch cards at a place called Whitey’s. The owner is a huge, albino, teddy bear of a man who wraps people he likes in gigantic hugs. Lord help the people he doesn’t like. A swat from one of his sledgehammer hands could hurt a guy but he’s a pussy cat if you don’t make him mad.
Whitey’s is one of at least seven Texas Hold’em rooms doing business at any given time. The number changes weekly, sometimes daily. Shade had to be a mind reader to figure out where I worked. Or else he knew enough about my business to make me very uncomfortable.
Without prompting, he took two rights and a left, which set him on a direct course to Whitey’s. A wiggly feeling crawled up my back.
The ride was seven minutes of no-talking long, which was fine with me. Besides wondering if Shade was my number one stalker, I was still processing the gun sightings of the day.
“You can drop me by the door,” I said to Shade when we pulled up in front of Whitey’s place. It was the first thing I’d said to him since we’d left my house.
“No gentleman would,” he replied. “Especially with you in that outfit. It’s an invitation to trouble. I’ll walk you in, Stripper. Whatcha gonna do with Sloppy while you’re workin’?”
“Me? Wait just a doggone minute here. When I wanted Runt’s truck, you took it. When I don’t want Runt’s dog, I get him. What’s up with that? Don’t park. You’re not going in. Don’t you have a horse to pull or something?”
“Did that already. Besides, me and Sloppy have a standin’ invitation. Whitey said to come anytime and bring a friend.”
“I think Whitey meant a friend with money!”
“Come on, Sloppy. I’ll spot you some money.”
“No-o-o.” Quickly I stepped down out of the truck to get ahead of Shade and the dog. Most women would love to walk into a room on Shade’s arm but not me. At least, not into this room.
It’s not that I’m ashamed of Shade. Or the dog. It’s just that this poker room caters to a certain type of clientele. Our players don’t bet the rent money. The men who gamble here are way out of Shade’s league, money-wise as well as wardrobe-wise
Also, our poker players bathed every day, I thought, fully aware of the horsy aroma following me into the building.
It took fast walking but I managed to enter the room a couple of feet ahead of Shade and his dogpal. Several players were already in the room. Doc Hong gave me a quick mouth kiss, then skirted by me to get to Shade and shake his hand.
“How’s my saddle comin’ along?” Doc asked, a Texas twang coming from his Asian face.
“Almost done, Doc, almost done,” Shade said. He reached past Doc and shook hands with lawyer Grey. “Good to see you both.” More men gathered around.
“Nice dog,” Doc and Grey said in unison. Doc bent down and scratched Sloppy between the ears. The dog’s eyes closed and his tail brushed back and forth on the floor.
I rolled my own eyes. Jeez, I should have known. It felt like Elvis had entered the building. If anyone thought it odd the dog wore a cell phone clipped to his collar, they didn’t mention it. I got myself a bottle of water and went to my first dealer spot of the evening. Sloppy followed behind me and curled up by my feet under the table.
Pate, a friendly, bald-headed guy, came over to my table. I leaned in his direction, tugging gently on the long white beard pulled into a pony tail under his chin. The beardtail told me he was on his motorcycle tonight.
“Did you hear the one about the Texan and his wife vacationing in France?” I asked Pate. My voice was low.
Shade sauntered over to the cooler and plucked a beer from the ice. My eyes followed him and I felt an urge to lick my lips.
“T.R.” Pate said, and I looked back at him blankly. “The joke?”
“Oh, I thought maybe you’d heard it already,” I said, trying to cover my embarrassment at having been caught looking and licking.
“Haven’t,” he whispered back, leaning towards me. Another man, a veterinarian called Vee, left Shade and headed my way.
I was still low-talking as I told my story, which must have peaked Grey’s interest because he drifted my way. Jeez, this was like herding cats. These men were here to play poker, not talk to Shade, I thought as I fanned out the deck of cards. That roped in Doc.
The spurt of laughter at the end of the joke pulled two more players my way. I had my six, a good start this early in the evening, but the last player joining us at the table was Shade.
Doc handed me a thousand dollars and I shoved several stacks of chips his way. Pate bought in for fifteen hundred. I continued selling chips around the table until I got to Shade.
Inwardly I groaned. Would he embarrass himself and buy in for pocket change? Would he be playing with the money he’d need to get his truck out of the police impound? He hadn’t mentioned the primer beast on the way to the poker room.
“How much, Shade?” I asked out loud but I was thinking he should quit talking to Doc and pay attention.
Shade absentmindedly pulled a wad of hundred dollar bills from his shirt pocket and slid them across the table. At the last possible moment his brown eyes lifted to mine. I blinked at the almost physical shock of the action.
Quickly I looked away and started counting his money. To my surprise it added up to two thousand dollars. Ca-rap, I told myself. He’d never get his truck back if he lost this. But I wasn’t his keeper, I thought as I pushed Shade his chips.
I shuffled the deck and dealt the first round of the night, then lifted my gaze to the TV across the room ─ anything to avoid more eye contact with Shade. A player at another table quickly glanced away.
Odd, I thought to myself. You’d think he’d at least have smiled before he turned away. He couldn’t be losing already. We’d just gotten started. Maybe he was embarrassed because he was caught looking. I knew how that felt.
I focused my attention back on my table. My players did their betting thing. Pate raised a finger at the game girl and ordered another drink. Doc lit a cigarette.
The table was quiet as players evaluated their cards, calculated their outs, and mustered up their gamble. I glanced at the distant TV and again caught the eye of the same guy. Again he turned away. OK, maybe he thought I was sexy. Or maybe he was staring because I was the only woman in the room.
The pot in the center held thirty dollars. I burned a card under the pot and slapped the three cards of the flop face down. Using my long fingernails to their best advantage, I flipped the cards over and slid them into a straight line at the center of the table. Nobody bothered looking at their hole cards again. These guys weren’t amateurs. Shade neither, I decided.
I resisted the urge to look at the guy across the room. Bets placed, I burned another card, then dealt the turn card. Sliding it up in line with the other three cards, I flipped it over. “King of hearts,” I announced.
Pulling the last round of bets into the main pot, I palmed another red chip for the house take and finally stole a look across the room, just in time to see the same quick glance away from the weird guy.
Creep. What’s up with that man? He unnerved me, staring at me like that. Like he’s spying on me. I made a mental note to ask Whitey about him. He wasn’t anyone I knew.
Maybe he was a Democrat and looking at the TV tuned to CNN behind me. That theory was easy to test. I reached into my box for the TV remote and switched the channel to cartoons. My players, busy with their cards and talking among themselves, didn’t even notice.
Once again I focused my attention back to my game, tapping twice on the table before I dealt the last card, the river. I flipped it over. Another king, this time a spade.
There were a couple of fake oohs and aahs and a few real grunts and groans from my players. A little over two hundred bucks was in the pot, minus house cut. “If you don’t got it, you ain’t gonna get it,” I said playfully as I mucked the remainder of the deck. “Show me a winner,” I announced.
I allowed my eyes to wander across the room. Ca-rap! That guy looked away again. OK, not a CNN fan. Possibly another stalker. The town seemed full of them.
To be continued Wednesday