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First pages

1

Las Vegas

 

Cn smone pls help? Thy wnt 2 DELETE me!

Took Kadey twice the usual time to get that message out.  Almost impossible to text when your thumbs slide across the translucent iPhone screen.  Her sweaty hands could barely hold onto it.  Maybe Twitter was not the best way to send a cry for help.  But it was all she had at the moment.  Calling the police would be futile.  Calling a friend would sign their death warrant.

She doubted her tweet would reach anyone in time.  She didn’t expect a flash mob rescue.  Because even now, when there were so many unanswered questions, there was one thing of which she was certain. 

She did not have much time left.

But she wouldn’t give up.  Her mother always said she was a fighter.  That was her life-mantra, even now.  Her mother always supported her.  Even when she decided against a career in mathematics to pursue something that brought her perilously close to what Mom called “the wrong side of the family.”  But The Platform made her an irresistibly generous offer.  Computer programming for military contracts seemed like a fine idea.  At the time. 

Less so now.

She ducked into an alleyway, gasping for breath.  She couldn’t see anyone behind her, but she didn’t let that delude her into believing no one was there.  If she didn’t do something fast, she would disappear, just like the others.  She pushed her hair off her sweaty forehead, tucking it behind her ear.

She glanced over her shoulder.  Something black and shadowy darted out of view.  The harsh glare of a streetlamp burned her eyes. 

Something had been there.  Something that was not there now. 

Something hidden. Or hiding.

She’d been kidnapped, held against her will for what seemed an eternity.  She would not survive it a second time.  So she ran.

She saw David go in.  Did he have time to download the files?  She couldn’t be sure.  After she heard the gunshot, she bolted.  And now she raced down rain-slicked streets, breathless, every nerve on fire. 

She smacked up against a chain-link fence, hoisted herself to the top, and vaulted over it.  Her black turtleneck snagged on a wire twist, tearing a hole in it.  She hit the pavement on the other side hard, her knees slamming into her chin.  Thank goodness for air shoes. Essential part of the savvy girl’s burglar outfit. 

She threw another glance over her shoulder.  She didn’t see anyone.  If she could make it home, she had a chance.

She raced through another alley and emerged on Fremont Street, gritting her teeth.  She could no longer hide in the shadows.  Not if she wanted to get home.  She would have to chance the neon glare of tourist Vegas. 

They wouldn’t try anything in public.  With so many potential witnesses.

Would they?

She bolted out of the alley.  The glitz of Vegas’s latest hot spot immersed her in harsh white light, a hint of enriched ozone, the smell of money, and noise, noise, noise.  Crowds spilled into the streets, loud and merry, or at least pretending to be.  Alcohol could only take you so far, and she knew that, statistically speaking, most of these people were losing money they had worked hard to earn. 

She turned sideways, edging her way through the crowd.  Progress was difficult, but anyone following her would be slowed as well.  Maybe more than she.  Easier for one camel to pass through the eye of a needle than an entire caravan… 

She knew she should focus on navigating the mass of bodies, but she paused long enough to glance behind her.  In the sea of faces, one stood out from the others.  

Because she’d seen it before.

Scream, she thought.  Surely someone would try to help.  Or would her cries be lost in the revelry, mistaken for one of the screams of excitement and delight?  She had to get to her apartment.  Then she would be safe.  She could get on her computer and use its encrypted line to get the word out, global.  Take it viral.  Stop them before—

Someone moving much too fast slammed into her from the left.  She spun sideways, careening against the flow of traffic.  A burly man with a sandy buzzcut and Jack Daniels cologne collided with her.  She fell forward, face first onto the pavement.

She fell on her hands, scraping them in the process.  The raw skin of her palms burned from the grit.  Boots and stilettoes pounded down all around her.  She tucked her hands close to protect them from further damage.

Keep your head together, she told herself.  Once you’ve made it to home plate, you’re safe.  But you can’t rest until—

She heard a voice beside her, an urgent rasping whisper.  “Don’t move.  Not if you want to live.”

Her entire body tensed.  He had her.  And there wasn’t a thing she could do about it.  She would be deleted and—

“Take it easy.  I’m a doctor.  Just wanted to make sure you weren’t hurt.  If you aren’t careful in this crowd, you’ll get trampled.  It’s dangerous out here, especially when you aren’t too steady on your feet.  If you want to live, let me help you.”

“You’re a doctor?  Prove it.”

The elderly man adjusted his eyeglasses.  “How? You want to see my stethoscope?”

She tried to shift her paranoia into low gear.  This man was only being kind.  “I’m fine.”

“Probably.  But you should still take it easy.”  He helped her sit up.

“I’ll be okay.”  She looked around.  Any interaction with this man might put him in danger.  “I’m sorry.  I can see that you’re trying to help me.  But I have to leave.”

“I really don’t think—” He looked at her like she was drunk or crazy, speaking slowly as if to a child.  He had no idea the danger he faced merely by attempting to assist her.

She struggled to her feet and backed away from him, navigating in reverse through the mob.  She knew she wasn’t handling this well, wasn’t thinking clearly.  But she had to get to her apartment.  Once she had a locked door behind her, she’d be able to work it all out.  What happened to David. What to do next.

She reached the edge of the main drag, leaving the hotels and casinos behind.  Her sticky clothes clung to her like a polyethylene bag, tight and suffocating. 

She swerved onto the street that led to her apartment.  She could see the front door just ahead.  She was going to make it.

She rounded the curve to her complex.  She didn’t slow until she was almost at her apartment’s front door.  She stopped, leaning against the wall, catching her breath, fumbling for her keys.  She pushed open the door and plunged inside, slamming the door behind her, double-locked and bolted.  After ripping the books off the hall bookshelf and dumping them in a pile on the floor, she dragged the heavy case across the room and pressed it against the door.  Then she shoved a towel under the crack.  Let’s see someone get through that.  Check and mate, you bastards. 

She went to her computer and opened her browser.  She would blanket the Internet.  Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, every bulletin board she knew.  Maybe a Skype alert posted on YouTube.  She would spread the word so far and wide that no amount of cover-up would be sufficient.  She would stay locked up in here until she knew it was safe to emerge.  She didn’t care how long it took.  She started typing—

“Katherine?”

She jumped out of her chair, pressing the Enter key by reflex.  “How did you get in?”

Two arms reached out of the darkness and threw her to the floor, then pulled her arms back and snapped a pair of handcuffs around her wrists.  She screamed and struggled but he was much too strong for her.  His movements were precise and unrelenting, like a machine. 

He held her down against the carpet and wrapped a large metal collar around her neck, then snapped it closed.  She knew she could never break it open, even if her hands were free.  He snapped a heavy chain to one end of the collar.

“Don’t do this,” she said.  “Please.”

“I have no choice.”

He jerked the chain, dragging her across the room.  She squirmed and tried to lock her legs around passing furniture.  He was too fast and too strong. 

“You do have a choice,” she said, gasping. “Everyone has a choice.  Everyone has free will.”

“Not in this world.  But perhaps, in the next.”  He placed the mask over her face.  She began to lose consciousness.  “I must fulfill my programming.”


2

Cn smone pls help? Thy wnt 2 DELETE me! 

Smone has to sp ths be4its 2 l8.  Evythng s about 2 chng &

Special Agent Palmer stared at the computer monitor.  “That’s how it ends?”

Greenstreet nodded.  “Not a letter more.  And it’s been twelve hours.  She didn’t show up for work.”

“And you think…?” 

“They say she and David Bishop were good buddies.  And you know what happened to him.”

He leaned back in his chair and inhaled the swill they called coffee.  His day never really started until the third mug.  “You searched her apartment?”

“We did.  And get this.  When we arrived, the bookshelf was pressed against the front door.  And there was a towel under the door.  Windows shut.  Took us forever to get in.”

“And the girl?”

“Gone.” 

“How could she exit but leave the shelf leaning against the door?”

“Exactly.  But that’s not what disturbs me most.”

“Yeah?  What does?”

Greenstreet pointed at the screen.  “She didn’t use all her characters.  She was desperate for help, but she left over characters unused.  Why?”

Palmer shrugged.  “Premature emission?”

“She would’ve sent a second message.  She would’ve tweeted all night long.  If she could.”  Greenstreet turned off the monitor.  “She never got the chance.”

“You think she’s…gone?”

“Just like the others.  Deleted.”

 

3

“Ladies and gentleman, let’s hear it for the final two.”

BB stepped in front of his opponent and spread wide his arms.  A wave of applause thundered through the exhibition area.  He grinned and waved, completely overshadowing poor Druktenis.  Why not? He saw no reason for modesty.  Making it this far in the tournament was an impressive accomplishment, even without considering everything else he’d done this year.  He was minutes away from clinching an unprecedented Triple Crown.

Besides, women loved the “cocky bastard” routine.  They all wanted the bad boy. 

He glanced up at the tall tiers of spectators encircling the playing table.  Not an empty seat up there.  He knew most of the rubberneckers were rooting for him.  Why not acknowledge it?  Humbleness would not fit well with his image as the Keith Richards of games.  His esteemed predecessor, Tommy Angelo, once said, “The best way to play poker is to act like Jesus but play like the Devil.”  BB thought he got it backwards.

He grabbed the microphone.  “I just want to thank all the fans who brought me here.  I couldn’t have done it without your loyal support.  This is for you!”

The room erupted with cheers.  He blew kisses with both hands, followed by a thunderous tumult of squealing and delight.  He raced around the periphery of the circle, slapping hands as he passed.  A young woman who couldn’t have been more than eighteen pressed a slip of paper into his hand.  He didn’t have to look to know it was her phone number.

“Can I have your autograph?”

The requests came from so many directions he couldn’t trace the sources.  A dozen pens materialized in his path.  He dodged them and kept moving.

“Sorry, ladies. Not now.  Gotta stay in the zone.”

He raced on, but heard a tiny voice behind him.  “But it’s for my mother.”

BB stopped short, pivoted, then grabbed the pen.  He scribbled his name across the front of the program.  As he handed it back, he made eye contact.  “You take care of your mother, sweetheart.”

She grabbed the program and clutched it to her heart.

BB kept running till he made it to his seat.  Yes, he’d managed to make every woman for miles around adore him.

Except the one he loved most.  Her contempt was a gaping wound no doctor could dress. 

Truth was, he liked the game, not the fame.  But he had learned there were advantages to a high profile, especially when you wanted to supplement prize winnings with lucrative endorsement contracts and the sale of concessions. 

The problem was, the longer he was in the spotlight, the greater the chance someone would learn his secret.   And if that happened, the fifteen minutes of fame allotted to “BB” would come to a crashing halt.  As if he had never existed.

Because in a very real way, he never had.

The overhead klieg lights were strong enough to make him wish he’d brought sunglasses. They made keeping his poker-faced sangfroid all the more challenging.  He could not afford to squint or sweat. 

A reporter jabbed a microphone into his face.  “BB, I’m Emily Martinez-Smith, ESPN.  Can you answer a few questions?”

She was pretty enough, in that plasticene way all reporters were, but he preferred to prep for the game without media interference.  He knew their involvement made the million-and-a-half purse possible.  But he didn’t appreciate anything that affected the purity of the game.

“Sure.  What do you want to know?”

“Do you think you’re going to win?”

“Of course I’m going to win.  I’m the Game Master.”

The crowd cheered.

“Gary Druktenis has been playing longer than you have.”

“So had the reigning champ at the Scrabble Nationals.  So had the top-seeded North American chess player.  Didn’t matter.  I am the Master.”

The reporter smiled.  He gave her what she wanted, and she was grateful.  How grateful? he wondered.  “What’s next for the Master?  Are there any mountains you haven’t scaled yet?”

“Got my eye on the Mind Games Olympiad.  I’d like to add an international title to my collection.  Then I’m going after that squirrelly Russian guy who thinks he plays a better game of chess than I do.”

“Rudolf Constanza?  World Grandmaster for the last twelve years?”

“Yeah.  Think it’s time for him to take early retirement.”

“You must be feeling intensely nervous right now.  This is your first Poker Grand Slam.”

“Nervous is for people with doubts.  I have no doubts about the outcome.  Druktenis is going down.”  He tried to say it in the overblown professional-wrestler manner that would play well in a sound bite when they were looking for a pre-commercial clip.

“There’s some controversy about whether poker should be considered a sport.  Do you think it’s a sport?”

“No.  It’s a game.  And that’s good.  Games are about more than violence and machismo. Games promote social interaction, strategic thinking, and abstract reasoning.  They exercise the mind, prevent senility.  Our lives can be defined as a network of interlocking games, many people playing different strategies but all hoping to win.  Game-playing is a survival skill.”

“You call yourself the Game Master.  Not exactly modest.”

“Modesty is for losers.  Not masters.” 

“Isn’t calling yourself the Game Master like saying you’re the Emperor of Ice Cream?”

“Games make people smarter.”

“Chess, sure.  Maybe Scrabble.  But poker? 

“Every game has its own realm.  Chess is about understanding strategy.  Scrabble is about understanding language.  Poker is about understanding people.”  He beamed.  “And I’m the master of all three.”

He saw the producer draw a thumb across his neck. 

“One last question.  What does BB stand for?”

“Anything you want it to, sweetheart.”

“You sign your name Steven C. Thomas.  So why do people call you BB?”

“That goes way back.”

“But what does it stand for?”

He grinned.  “Beautiful Baby.  Better Better.  Babe Bamboozler.  You choose.”

The reporter turned to face the camera.  “And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen.  We may not know what his name stands for, but we know what he stands for.  A first-rate game.  And today, one of these men will walk away with a purse worth one and a half million dollars.” 

A million and a half.  That was real money.  The largest purse ever awarded to a single winner of a competitive event.  Some boxing purses were a little larger, but those had to be split by the boxer and manager and an army of trainers.  Like the cheese in the children’s song, the poker player stands alone.  Many players sold percentages of their action before the tournament to insulate themselves against bad luck or bad cards, or to smooth out an erratic income flow.  Not BB.  For him, the game was paramount.  Give someone else a piece, and soon they’d be trying to tell you whether to call or fold.  His judgment had brought him this far.  He’d let it take him all the way.

“And so the field has been narrowed to two contenders, Gary Druktenis of Skokie, Illinois, and Steve ‘BB’ Thomas of Palm Beach.”  The ESPN announcer stood at the head of the table, using the players as backdrops.  “We’ll enter the final round of the World Series of Poker right after this message.” 

Three minutes to plan his endgame.

Or maybe not.  Druktenis strolled over and extended his hand.  “Looks like we’re down to the finish line, pal.  May the best man win.”

BB reluctantly took his hand.  He valued friends, but despised people who pretended friendship when they weren’t feeling it. He was generally good at reading people.  An invaluable asset for this game—but not necessarily for social bonding.  “That’s the way it generally works out.”

“Man, you learned me during that last hand last night.  You saw right through my bluff.”

“I had no idea what you were holding.  I threw in after the second flop and hoped for the best.”

“You’re being modest.  I’ve picked up a lot of tips watching you play.”

BB doubted he had taught Druktenis anything.  Druktenis was a twenty-year veteran of this game.  “You have good instincts.  You couldn’t have won Chicago otherwise.”

“I was on my home turf.  Makes it easier.”

“You didn’t get that bracelet just for being the homie.”  The winners of all the qualifying events received a silver bracelet.  The winner of the World Series received a gold bracelet, the poker equivalent of the Masters tournament’s green jacket.  That bracelet was the most coveted prize in the game.  The money was good, too, but that went into the bank.  A champ could wear the gold bracelet forever.  “I hope this doesn’t go on too long.  I’m melting under these lights.”

“I don’t think it will take that long,” Druktenis said.  “I don’t think it will take long at all.”

The announcer gave them the one-minute signal.  Druktenis returned to his seat. 

He pulled himself into his pregame meditative state.  He’d learned to channel his mental energy and to focus it on one thing—the game. 

One minute later, the World Series of Poker continued.

Different games were played at various qualifying events, but here in the finals, they played Texas Hold ‘Em all the way to the end.  The dealer tossed out the first hand. 

Druktenis got an Ace and King from different suits.  BB had two non-counters.  The flop was unhelpful.  He folded at his first opportunity. 

The second hand was equally unpromising.  They both were dealt pairs, but Druktenis’s was better.  BB bet for a time, hoping for help from the flop, but it didn’t arrive. 

The next few hands only made matters worse.  Over $100,000 in chips traveled from his side of the table to Druktenis’s.  The problem wasn’t Druktenis.  The problem was the cards.  Apparently he had displeased the gods of poker.  In the first ten minutes, he only won two hands.  At this rate, he had enough chips to last maybe a half an hour.  If he didn’t turn the game around quickly, his dream of being the first Triple Crown winner was doomed.

The blinds went to $30,000.  Druktenis raised to $90,000 from the button.  BB held two tens.  The dealer ripped out a rainbow flop of 8-9-9.  Druktenis rapped on the felt tabletop twice—a check-raise. 

Now or never.  BB bet 100 dimes--$100,000.  Druktenis raised him to $350,000.  The crowd gasped.

BB did, too.  But silently.  If Druktenis was holding a third nine, or worse, two of them, the game was over.  But he might not have bet so much if that was the case.  It would be too obvious.  Unless that was what he wanted BB to think.

Playing poker was a mindreading act.  A player could slip into endless contemplation of what the opponent knows, what he knows you know, what he knows that you know that he knows, etc.  He couldn’t make a decision in an infinite logical regress.  He needed intel.

Playing this game required scrupulous attention to behavior, to the tiniest of details.  Under the microscope, everyone’s behavior altered.  That was why there was so much more to this game than the mere calculation of odds.  Poker was not unlike the famous thought experiment with Schrodinger’s cat: Observation changed the results.

Out the corner of his eye, he saw the producer signal another cut to commercial.  A second later, he felt a jolt to his shoulder.  “Excuse me, sir.  You’ll have to come with us.”

He turned to see who spoke. 

The man standing behind him wore a dark suit, jacket closed, white shirt, buttoned-down collar, black tie.  He didn’t look like a pit boss and he certainly didn’t look like he worked for ESPN.

The man tilted his head as if to show him which way to walk.

He glanced at Druktenis.  “Is this some sort of diversionary tactic?”

Druktenis appeared as baffled as he was.

He cleared his throat. “Did you not notice the television cameras or the thousand or so people in the gallery?  This is the World Series of Poker.”

The man’s expression remained flat. “I’m a federal agent and this is a matter of extreme urgency.  Please come with me.”

A federal agent?  Did the man think he was cheating?  “I’m not going anywhere until this game is over.”

“Let me make this simple for you, sir.  You have no choice.”  BB noticed the bulge in his jacket.  “I’m prepared to use force if necessary.  If you want a scene, then we’ll have a scene.  Or you can come quietly.  But either way, you’re coming.”

“But—this is the World Series of Poker!”

“I don’t give a damn.”  The man reached into his suit coat and flashed a badge.  “I’m Special Agent Palmer of the FBI and I’m investigating a potential threat to national security.”

“What does that have to do with me?”

“There’s been a murder.  Gruesome.  Almost medieval.”  He gazed at BB levelly.  “And it has your name all over it.  Literally.” 

 


4

He was not the only one.

That dangerous truth burned holes into Julian’s brain.  But he put it aside.  He must focus his attention on the game.  Emissaries of the Other could arrive at any moment.

He stared at his hands, still caked with that man’s blood.  Unforeseen developments required him to take steps he had not anticipated.  Steps that apparently no one had anticipated.  Which was even more disturbing than what he had been forced to do.  Everything was supposed to be worked out in advance, planned in detail, with the minutest matters calculated and anticipated.  But they hadn’t been.  And now he was Lady Macbeth on a mountaintop, except he knew it was pointless to attempt to eradicate the damned spot.  That would never come out.  No matter what he did.

He had a safe vantage point that allowed him to observe the sixth floor of the neighboring building.  He had watched everything that transpired since the body was discovered.  He felt confident that the next few hours would unfold as planned.  But he could never be totally certain.  Not even the greatest oracle in the world could rest assured.  Especially when the stakes were so enormous. And every move had consequences.

He had been up all night and his eyelids ached to close.  Stimulants were not allowed.  Not even coffee.  There was always a price to pay later.  No matter. He didn’t need artificial aids.  The strength of his mind would keep him alert as long as necessary. 

He still wore his outfit from the night before, the rapid assault shirt with saddle-shoulder design (for range of movement), all-weather trousers and leather side-zip safety-toe boots.  Good for running, climbing, and kicking the hell out of someone, if the game required it.  A microfiber response jacket.  They all came from 5.11, the American supplier that made the best tactical clothing and gear in the world. 

He adjusted his monocular to focus on the CSI teams on the sixth floor.  They would find nothing.  They were not meant to find anything.  The clues were for other eyes.

Just to be certain, he eavesdropped on their conversation.  The night before he planted a Fortex 5000, a hypersensitive omnidirectional microphone so small it could be hidden inside the nib of a pen.  Didn’t even need a battery.  It could be powered by induction.  If it was near a power cord—and it was—it would absorb the needed energy to power itself.  He could hear everything the device picked up through an app on his cell. 

He adjusted the scope to scrutinize the rooftop.  He detected the means to get to the other building from here.  Useful.  The route he had traveled last night was no longer accessible.  Too many people in the way. 

He did not look forward to what lay ahead.  But he had a duty to perform.  For the world, yes, but also for the Father.

Anything for the Father.

He understood the import of the meeting in Dubai.  But it meant the Father could not be here.  Even the Father could not be everywhere, could not see everything, all at once.

He was glad to be of assistance.

He was occasionally plagued with doubt.  That was his great failing, his sin. But he knew this with certainty: Only one man had ever cared about him.  Helped him.  Saved him, after he had abandoned all hope.  Saved him from the world that pushed him and beat him until he was almost utterly destroyed. 

He pressed a finger against his SRAC—short-range agent communication device.  Ideal for tactical experiments that required cloaked radio communications.

“They’ll be there shortly.”

“Understood.”

“The game is ready?”

“As directed.”

“Controls in place?”

“Of course.”

“There may be more interference.”

“I will be ready.”  He tapped his nylon pancake holster.  “I will respond appropriately to any threats that arise.”

“Good.  Out.”

Given the stakes, no price was too dear and any action was justified.  Last night’s work.  Today’s mission.  The rigors of the game.  Anything.

After all, a scientist must be rigorous.

He resumed his position and waited for the Game Master to arrive. 

 

 


5

BB normally processed information quickly, but this jarring interruption left his brain feeling like slow-moving sludge.  “My name?  On a murder?  What are you talking about?”

“I’ll explain everything in private.  Right now, you need to come with me.”

He glanced into the gallery.  The spectators buzzed, wondering who the suit-coat stranger at the table might be.  Twenty seconds till the commercial break ended.  “I’m not going anywhere.”

“I’m hoping we can keep this civil, sir.”

By now, the crowd realized something was wrong.  The commercial ended and the red light on the cameras lit dealer waited for him to make his move.

His brain went into overdrive, performing rapid-fire calculations of odds and risk.  “Can you give me five minutes?” he asked Palmer.

“No.”

“One minute, then.  Sixty stinking seconds.”

Palmer exhaled heavily.  “I suppose I can manage that.”

He turned back to the game table and looked Druktenis straight in the eye.  “I have a high pair. Two tens.”

“Is that a fact,” Druktenis replied evenly.  Translation: I don’t believe a word you say, but I’ll play your game.  “I have three nines, counting the two from the flop.  Sounds like you lose.”

“Unless one of us is lying.”

“I’m betting that’s you.”

“My mother told me to never tell lies.  I do have two tens—and a third one.”

They both smiled like cobras.  He detected perspiration on Druktenis’s upper lip.  So much was at stake.  And so many were watching.  “You’re not lying?”

“I’m not.”

“Scout’s honor?”

“As I live and breathe.”

“Cross your heart?”

“And hope to die.”

The crowd lapped it up.  Laughter blended with applause.  This cowboy-saloon poker game appeared headed for a showdown. 

“Enough bantering,” Druktenis said.  “Check.”

“All in.”  Without missing a beat, he pushed his chips forward.

The gallery reacted with audible surprise.  The cameras zoomed in.

“Sure you want to do that?” Druktenis asked.

“No choice.”  He glanced over his shoulder at Palmer.  “Apparently this is my last hand.”

Druktenis said nothing more.  The dealer dealt out the flop.  Another card, then the river. Still no help.

The dealer turned over their cards. 

He showed his tens.  But Druktenis had no nines to match the two from the flop.

Druktenis’s lips parted.  “But—”

BB’s eyebrows danced.  “Yes?”

“You tricked me.”

“Yes.”

The ESPN reporter thrust a mike between them.  “What was the trick?  I didn’t see a trick.”

Druktenis extended his hand.  “Congratulations, BB.  You deserve this.”

“Coming from a man of your experience, that’s quite a compliment.”  They shook hands.

The crowd exploded with cheers and applause.  “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a champion,” the announcer proclaimed.  “The Winner of the World Series, with its 1.5 million dollar purse—and the first to capture the Triple Crown of games—the Prince of Games—”

He interrupted.  “That’s Game Master.”  Another enthusiastic round of cheering and clapping erupted.

Palmer tugged at his arm.  “Okay, Master.  Time to go.”

The lead tournament official rushed forward.  “Excuse me, but we have a winner’s ceremony.  BB will receive a trophy and a gold bracelet and a big check.”

“Mail them to him.” 

“But the press will want photographs.  Interviews.”

“Sorry.”  Palmer flashed a badge and a don’t-mess-with-me expression.  The official backed off.

“I’ll return as soon as I can,” he said, shrugging.  He grabbed Emily’s microphone.  “Apparently the government is so eager to claim their share of the prize winnings they’re not even going to wait till I get it.”  The ensuing laughter helped smooth his sudden departure.  Palmer led him off the stage. 

“Boy, you really know how to spoil a great moment.”

“I’ll apologize later.”

“How am I going to explain why I left so abruptly?”

“You’ll come up with something.”  The tight-lipped expression on the agent’s face suggested that this man might not be his greatest fan.  “Maybe you’ll concoct a ‘Master’ plan.”

#

BB stared out the car window.  Agent Palmer hadn’t said a word since they got into his rented Ford Escort.  He still didn’t understand why the FBI would want to talk to him.  Not because he couldn’t think of anything he’d done that might get him into trouble.  Because there were too many possibilities.

“You a Vegas native, Palmer?”

“Nah.  East Coast.  D.C.”

“What are you doing in Sin City?”

“Flew out by copter this morning.  Landed at Biggs.”  He hesitated a moment.  “There have been several disappearances that may relate to an ongoing investigation.  And now, an extremely puzzling murder.”

“I like puzzles.”

“I don’t.”

“Clue me in.”

Palmer didn’t take his eyes off the windshield.  “I’d rather wait till we arrive at our destination.  Then I can show you.”

He watched as the Vegas strip flew past.  He loved the flamboyance of it all, the towering fountains, pirate ships, reproduction pyramids.  He wondered how the real Eiffel Tower compared with this one.  The streets were packed with tourists, con men, and prostitutes.  Shopping, gaming, and sightseeing in the middle of the desert, where there were no real sights to see.  People plied with free drinks and buffets so they would gamble away their life savings.  Disneyland for drunks and dummies.

He still loved it.

“I think you owe me something.  You just yanked me away from a major conquest.  Cheated me out of my chance to bask in adulation.  I’m experiencing serious pokerus interruptus.”

Palmer pursed his lips.  Was that his version of a smile?  “Most crimes are solved in the first six hours or not at all. I’m not going to waste those precious hours, especially when another life might hang the balance. Certainly not going to sit around waiting for some stupid game to end.”

“Hey, the World Series of Poker is a big deal.”

“So is murder.”

“I never murdered anyone.  Except at the card table today.”

“You got lucky.”

“There is an element of luck in any card game.  But I beat Druktenis by outthinking him.”

“Give me a break.  You didn’t know what he had in the hole.”

 


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

William Bernhardt is the author of more than thirty books, including the Ben Kincaid series of legal thrillers, the Shine paranormal young adult series, and the Red Sneakers nonfiction books on writing. He is also a popular writing instructor. He has written plays, including a musical (book and music), children’s books, biography, poetry, and crossword puzzles. He loves Shakespeare, comic books, Harry Chapin, cats, and games. He lives in Oklahoma with his wife, Lara, and their children.

Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A.
I was having dinner with my dear friend David Morrell (Rambo's daddy) and board games came up. After I rattled off all the valid Scrabble words with Qs not followed by Us and the 105 two-letter words, David said, "You ought to use this in a book." Thanks, David.
Q. This book is part of a series, tell us about your series.
A.
I had a great time creating the Game Master. His expertise in chess means he understands strategy, his expertise in Scrabble means he understands language, and his expertise in poker means he understands people. I'm looking forward to devising his next game-and-puzzle-packed adventure.
Q. Where can readers find out more about you?
A.
Please visit my website, www.williambernhardt.com, which will tell you more about me than you probably wanted to know. Writers and aspiring writers can sign up for the free Red Sneakers e-newsletter, which is full of writing and market news & tips: http://www.williambernhardt.com/writing_instruction

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