KITTY’S MIX-TAPE by Carrie Vaughn preview: “The Arcane Art of Misdirection”

In celebration of the release of Carrie Vaughn’s final Kitty Norville book KITTY’S MIX-TAPE, Tachyon presents glimpses from the book that “is a guarantee of quality entertainment and a night of no sleep as I stay up late to devour it!” (Patricia Briggs, bestselling author of the Mercy Thompson series)

Cover design by Elizabeth Story

The Arcane Art of Misdirection

by
Carrie Vaughn

The cards had rules, but they could be made to lie.

The rules said that a player with a pile of chips that big was probably cheating. Not definitely—luck, unlike cards, didn’t follow any rules. The guy could just be lucky. But the prickling of the hairs on the back of Julie’s neck made her think otherwise.

He was middle-aged, aggressively nondescript. When he sat down at her table, Julie pegged him as a middle-management type from flyover country—cheap gray suit, unimaginative tie, chubby face, greasy hair clumsily combed over a bald spot. Now that she thought about it, his look was so cliché it might have been a disguise designed to make sure people dismissed him out of hand. Underestimated him.

She’d seen card-counting rings in action—groups of people who prowled the casino, scouted tables, signaled when a deck was hot, and sent in a big bettor to clean up. They could win a ridiculous amount of money in a short amount of time. Security kept tabs on most of the well-known rings and barred them from the casino. This guy was alone. He wasn’t signaling. No one else was lingering nearby.

He could still be counting cards. She’d dealt blackjack for five years now and could usually spot it. Players tapped a finger, or sometimes their lips moved. If they were that obvious, they probably weren’t winning anyway. The good ones knew to cut out before the casino noticed and ejected them. Even the best card counters lost some of the time. Counting cards didn’t beat the system, it was just an attempt to push the odds in your favor. This guy hadn’t lost a single hand of blackjack in forty minutes of play.

For the last ten minutes, the pit boss had been watching over Julie’s shoulder as she dealt. Her table was full, as others had drifted over, maybe hoping some of the guy’s luck would rub off on them. She slipped cards out of the shoe for her players, then herself. Most of them only had a chip or two—minimum bid was twenty-five. Not exactly high rolling, but enough to make Vegas’s middle-America audience sweat a little.

Two players stood. Three others hit; two of them busted. Dealer drew fifteen, then drew an eight—so she was out. Her chubby winner had a stack of chips on his square. Probably five hundred dollars. He hit on eighteen—and who in their right mind ever hit on eighteen? But he drew a three. Won, just like that. His expression never budged, like he expected to win. He merely glanced at the others when they offered him congratulations.

Julie slid over yet another stack of chips; the guy herded it together with his already impressive haul. Left the previous stack right where it was, and folded his hands to wait for the next deal. He seemed bored.

Blackjack wasn’t supposed to be boring.

She looked at Ryan, her pit boss, a slim man in his fifties who’d worked Vegas casinos his whole life. He’d seen it all, and he was on his radio. Good. Security could review the video and spot whatever this guy was doing. Palming cards, probably—though she couldn’t guess how he was managing it.
She was about to deal the next hand when the man in question looked at her, looked at Ryan, then scooped his chips up, putting stack after stack in his jacket pockets, then walked away from the table, wearing a small, satisfied grin.

He didn’t leave a tip. Even the losers left tips.

“Right. He’s gone, probably heading for the cashiers. Thanks.” Ryan put his radio down.

“Well?” Julie asked.

“They can’t find anything to nail him with, but they’ll keep an eye on him,” Ryan said. He was frowning, and seemed suddenly worn under the casino’s lights.

“He’s got to be doing something, if we could just spot it.”

“Never mind, Julie. Get back to your game.”

He was right. Not her problem.

Cards slipped under her fingers and across the felt like water. The remaining players won and lost at exactly the rate they should, and she collected more chips than she gave out. She could tell when her shift was close to ending by the ache that entered her lower back from standing. Just another half hour and Ryan would close out her table, and she could leave. Run to the store, drag herself home, cobble together a meal that wouldn’t taste quite right because she was eating it at midnight, but that was dinnertime when she worked this shift. Take a shower, watch a half hour of bad TV and finally, finally fall asleep. Wake up late in the morning and do it all again.

That was her life. As predictable as house odds.