King Con

PROLOGUE

THE POKER GAME HAD BEEN A CARD-HUSTLER’S DREAM; the players were strictly in the talented-amateur category and the stakes were unlimited. It was rumored that hundreds of thousands of dollars routinely changed hands in the invitation-only game that commenced promptly at seven-thirty every Tuesday night in the luxurious locker room of New Jersey’s Greenborough Country Club. There was an investment banker from Cleveland who was a cautious bettor, and refused to step up even when he held sure winners. He’d also occasionally chase a bluff like a puppy after a pickup truck. There was a fat electronics-store owner who was constantly bathed in a sheen of his own sweat and was a shameless plunger. There were two brothers from Greenborough, who owned a Lexus dealership. They were trying to team play, but kept misreading each other. They talked trash, drank too much, and ended up losing five out of six hands.

Then there was Joseph Rina. He was only five-eight, but there was an aura about him. He radiated power and was movie-star handsome. He was reputed to be a New Jersey mob boss, although he had never been convicted of anything. His nickname on the street was Joe “Dancer.” He sat at the green felt table, clothed in perfectly tailored Armani. He remained distant from the others, playing without comment, his magnificently handsome face giving away nothing. Joe Rina joined this game once a month. He would drive down from Atlantic City to the Greenborough Country Club and was generally the big winner.

Seated to his right was Beano Bates. He had been trying to get in this high-stakes game for a month. He was a well-known card sharp and con man, so he was playing incognito, under the name of Frank Lemay. Dark-haired and handsome, he had always traded on his looks and charm.

Although he was a world-class poker player, Beano never depended solely on his card-playing skill. He had two “shiners” working on the table: One was a money clip that he could lay on the table directly in front of him. It was shiny, but only reflected directly back. If you looked at the clip from any other angle, it appeared to be dull and non-reflective. Beano could deal cards over the clip, and the shiner would reflect the cards as they were flipped off the deck, giving him full knowledge of what was in play. The other was a “palm shiner,” which he used when it wasn’t his deal. It was a tiny, upside-down periscope. He could palm it, or hold it cupped in his hand on the green felt table, positioned so he could look down through the space between his fingers. The palm shiner was low enough on the table to read the cards being dealt off the deck across from him. These two shiner positions, plus his natural skill at cards, gave him an unbeatable edge.

By ten-thirty, Beano Bates, a.k.a. Frank Lemay, was eighty-six thousand dollars ahead. The poker chips were stacked in columns in front of him like colorful prisoners captured in battle.

At eleven o’clock they took the main break, and Beano found himself standing next to Joe “Dancer” Rina at the urinal in the overlit men’s locker room of the omate country club. White tile and chrome fixtures glittered under the bright ceiling lights, while the two men arched yellow streams into the shiny porcelain trough like two teenage boys pissing in a lake for distance.

“You been getting good cards,” Joe Rina said without emotion, his movie-star face revealing no hint of danger.

“Sometimes the cards run that way,” Beano replied as he watched