James Swain

“Every day above ground is a good day.”

Doyle Brunson

Part 1

The Claimers

Chapter 1

Their names were Bo and Karen Farmer. Bronco Marchese had chosen them to be his claimers because they were young and didn’t have criminal records. Best of all, they were about to be married. When it came to cheating a casino, there were no better claimers than a pair of newlyweds.

Dressed in their wedding clothes, Bo and Karen had left northern Sacramento early one Friday morning, and driven four hours to the Cal Neva Lodge in Nevada. The Cal Neva was a favorite spot for couples to get hitched, the lodge overlooking beautiful Lake Tahoe and the snow-tipped mountains that surrounded it.

Bronco was playing a slot machine when Bo and Karen entered the Cal Neva’s casino. The couple didn’t have much money, and had borrowed on their credit cards to rent Bo’s tuxedo and Karen’s wedding dress. It was a beautiful dress, with a long train and a fall skirt complete with stiff crinolines that made Karen look like an antebellum. As they’d walked through the casino to the wedding chapel in the rear of the building, every eye in the place had fallen upon them. Karen was blond and drop-dead pretty, Bo tall and ruggedly handsome, and they looked right for each other.

Bronco picked up his pail of coins, and followed them. There were weddings every half-hour in the chapel, and he slipped into a back pew without being noticed. The ceremony was short and sweet, and he watched them exchange vows and kiss. Two nights ago when they’d gone to dinner in the Old Town section of Sacramento and hatched their plan, Karen had confided in Bronco. She’d told him that she wanted to believe her late mother would have liked Bo, even though Bo had the devil in him.

“Does that bother you?” Bronco had asked her.

Karen had smiled coyly. “Most boys I’ve known did.”

Bronco had smiled back at her. Not everybody was cut out to cheat a casino. Bo and Karen were different. They were young and naive, and both had a touch of larceny, which made them perfect. Bronco had grabbed the check and paid up.

When the ceremony was over, Bronco returned to the casino and sat down at a slot machine. When Karen and Bo walked past moments later, Bronco found himself staring at the young bride. Although he was forty-five and physically out of shape, he still believed that young women found him attractive. Two nights ago, he’d been convinced that Karen had been coming on to him.

Bronco shifted his attention to Bo. To rob a casino, each member of the gang had to play a role. This was important because there were surveillance cameras in the ceiling, and they were always turned on. Bo’s role was the impatient groom. Bronco watched Bo walk up to the front desk and ask the female reservationist if their suite was ready. The reservationist checked her computer.

“Your room’s still being cleaned, Mr. Farmer,” she replied.

“Can’t you do something?” Bo asked, sounding angry.

“I’m sorry, sir, but there’s nothing I can do.”

“Come on, it’s my wedding day.”

“How about I give you a coupon, and you can play the slot machines until it’s ready?” the reservationist suggested.

“A coupon? How’s that work?” Bo asked.

The reservationist opened a drawer, and removed a coupon with the Cal Neva’s logo stamped on it. Handing it to him, she said, “The coupon is worth fifty dollars. Go to the cage, and present it to the lady behind the window. She’ll redeem it for you in quarters, and you and your wife can play the slot machines.”

Karen came over to where her husband was standing. “What’s wrong, honey?”

“Room’s not ready,” Bo sulked. “You want to play the slots?”


The reservationist removed a second coupon from the drawer. “Here, Mrs. Farmer, you can have one, too. Good luck.”

Bronco found himself smiling. He’d used a lot of claimers over the years, but few took to it as easily as these two. He followed them across the casino to the cage, and watched Bo exchange the coupons for two plastic pails filled with quarters.

“Here you go, honey,” Bo said. “You know what they say about virgin luck.”

Karen blushed up a storm. “Very funny,” she said under her breath.

“It’s an old gambling expression,” Bo said, grinning. “People who gamble for the first time always win big.”

“Always?” Karen asked.

“Just about.” Bo undid his tie, and stuffed it into his pocket. He pointed across the casino at the banks of glittering slot machines. “Follow me.”

“Why those machines?” Karen asked.

“Because they have the biggest payouts,” Bo said. Looking at the cashier inside the cage, he said, “Isn’t that right? You should always play the slot machines with the biggest payouts.”

“That’s right,” the cashier said brightly.

They were better than good, Bronco thought. As they walked away, Bronco saw the cashier look at him.

“What a nice couple,” the cashier said.

Bronco followed the newlyweds across the busy casino floor. Karen walked holding her dress in one hand, her

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