For Margaret and Charles Swain
Thanks to George Lucas, my editor, Chris Calhoun, my agent, and my friends Steve Forte and Shawn Redmond, for their help and guidance.
Above all, thanks to my wife, Laura, my partner in writing, and in life.
Crossroaders see the world differently than the rest of us,” Tony Valentine was saying to his neighbor over dinner in his kitchen. Buttering real butter onto his roll, he took a healthy bite. “Don't remind me, bad for my heart, but I've got to have the real taste now and again. Makes life worth living, if you know what I mean.”
“What's a crossroader?” Mabel Struck asked.
“A crossroader is a name for a hustler or a cheat. It comes from the Old West practice of cheating at saloons that were located at the crossroads of one-horse towns.”
“I presume so the cheater could make a hasty getaway.”
“Exactly. So where was I?”
“You were painting an altogether ugly picture of the people you put behind bars,” his neighbor said sweetly.
“Right. Crossroaders live a lie twenty-four hours a day. You know the worst thing that can happen to a crossroader?”
Spooning a forkful of homemade lasagna into her mouth, Mabel shook her snow-white head no.
“Is that like getting hives?”
“No. When you get heat, it means someone suspects you. And once someone suspects you, you can't move in a game. So crossroaders do everything imaginable not to get heat.”
Mabel, who had never gambled, was slow to catch on. She was more impressed with his colorful stories of celebrities he'd met during his twenty-plus years protecting Atlantic City's casinos than the nuts and bolts of his profession.
“Give me an example,” she said.
Valentine scratched his chin, trying to think of an example that would not confuse her. “Have you ever played poker?”
“My late husband used to hold Friday night poker games at the house. I didn't play, but I understand the rules.”
“Good. Let's say a crossroader is playing in your late husband's Friday night game. Between hands, he secretly palms out a pair of kings, and sticks them under his leg. A minute later, another player takes the deck and counts the cards. ‘This deck is short,' he says. What does the crossroader do?”
Mabel gave it some serious thought. “I know. He says, ‘Let me see those cards!' And he grabs the deck and adds the two kings.”
She clapped her hands. “Am I right?”
“You most certainly are. What does he do then?”
“He counts them.”
“Right again. Now for the big test. What does he say after he counts them?”
Mabel hesitated, clearly stumped.
“I'd say, ‘You must have counted wrong. There are fifty-two.'?” Mabel brought her hand to her mouth. “Wait. That would narrow it down to the two of us, wouldn't it?”
“It would,” Valentine conceded.