BOBBY JOKER, professional poker player. That was how he always introduced himself. Not Bobby. Not Bobby Joker. But Bobby Joker, professional poker player. Like he deserved the same sort of recognition that a doctor or lawyer did. * * * "You get them new boots?" Bobby asked. "Nope," Freddie said, shuffling his feet under the kitchen table. "Why not?" "They weren't on sale." Bobby stopped dealing the cards. "Paper said they were." "Well, I went there and they were regular price." "You talk to the manager?" "No." "Why not? If the paper said they's on sale, you show him the paper and he's gotta give them to you at the sale price. Ain't nothing to it." Freddie picked his cards up, not looking back at Bobby, and said, "I didn't take the paper with me. Left it in the bathroom." "You still coulda got the manager to give them to you for the sales price. Hell, they probably got a coupla papers around the place and you coulda showed him one if he wanted to argue." "Yeah, whatever." "Freddie, pay attention to what I'm saying to you. I'm trying to help you out." Bobby picked up his cards and shuffled them front to back slowly. "Whatever. I don't care." Freddie lowered his hand and said, "We gotta play this?" Bobby gazed at his cards, fingering his lucky key chain through his jeans, the key chain attached to the set of car keys he won in his first big poker match two years ago. That was the night he decided to go pro and play for a living. The key chain was from Diamond Dolls, black metal in the shape of a naked woman with small diamonds where the nipples were supposed to be. The keys were to a '99 Geo Tracker, teal with reflective racing stripes. The girl he won it off drove a moped for a month before she got run over in a four car pile-up. It was Bobby's moped she was on. He gave it to her because he felt sorry after winning her car. Bobby thought all the time about how it could have been him on the moped. Now he carried the key chain everywhere he went. Bobby looked at Freddie and said, "Yeah, we gotta play this. I told you it helps me." Freddie shook his head, muttering something, then said, "Alright, got any threes?" Bobby smiled. "Go fish." Freddie drew a card and said, "I don't see how this stupid game helps you. It's for kids, man. I feel like I'm six again." "How many times I gotta tell you? It's a memory game. It helps me remember what cards are out so I can figure the odds. It's better with a couple more people. When's your sister getting home, anyway?" Then, looking at his cards, "Got any kings?" "Damn, just drew it." Freddie handed the card over. "I don't know when Amy's coming. She ain't gonna want to play this stupid game though. I can tell you that." "Fours?" "Shit, man, you stack the deck or something?" Freddie held out a four of clubs. Bobby's mobile phone rang, playing the theme to Rocky. He answered, "Bobby Joker, prof-" "Bobby? It's Starky." Bobby sat up in the kitchen chair and put his cards down, still fanned out neatly. "Starky, how's it going?" "Peachy. You still wanna go to Vegas?" Starky was a three hundred pound man with a fetish for Philly steak subs and Asian porn. He slept with a Glock under his pillow and went nowhere without his dog, Rufus, a scruffy mutt that got hit by a car in front of his house threeyears ago and left to die. Starky took him to the vet and said to the guy, "Fix him," letting the doc see the Glock poking out the waistline of his size 46 Dockers. Starky didn't believe in small talk. "Vegas?" Bobby repeated, not believing what he was hearing. He'd approached Starky about sponsoring him for the World Series of Poker almost three months ago and never heard one word from him till now. "Yeah, I still wanna go." "Ten grand, right?" "Yeah, ten's the buy-in but-" "I got a guy wants to cover you." "That's great, Starky, but-" "He wants a sixty percent cut of the winnings if he's putting up the seed. Got it?" "Yeah, I got it, but Starky …"-waiting to see if Starky was going to interrupt him again-"it's too late." There was a pause, then Starky said, "Too late?" His tone was deeper. "Yeah, they closed it two weeks ago. That was the deadline. They ain't letting no more players in." Silence. "But I done talked you up. Told the guy you was a shoe-in." Bobby bit his lip. "I'm sorry, man. Ain't nothing I can do about it." Bobby heard Rufus bark in the background. Then Starky said, "Who I gotta call?" "Huh?" "Who I gotta call to get you in?" "It don't work like that, Starky." "The hell it don't. Everything in this world works like that. Even presidential elections work like that. They don't like the way it turned out, they get a recount or a new election. Claim some paperwork was lost or misfiled or some shit." Starky never talked this much unlesshe was getting upset. Once he got all the way upset, he was quiet again. It was sometimes hard to tell if he'd reached boiling point or calmed back down. He continued, "So, like I was saying, who I gotta call?" Bobby sighed. "Guy's name is Chet." Bobby gave Starky the guy's office phone number, then said, "That's all I got." And the line went dead. "Shit," Bobby said, laying his phone on the table. "Shit. Shit, shit, shit." "What?" Freddie asked. "Starky's gonna do something stupid." "Who fucked with him?" "No, nothing like that. He's gonna go to the guy that runs the poker thing around here and get me in the tournament." "That's cool, man. What's wrong with that?" Bobby shook his head. "This ain't the way it's supposed to go down. Not like this. He's liable to fuck that lawyer up pretty bad to get me in." "Don't worry about it, man. That's on him, not you." Bobby picked his cards up, looked at them, and said, "You got any fours?" Freddie frowned. "You already asked for fours." * * * BOBBY SHIFTED HIS Geo Tracker into park and left it running. "Roxanne" by the Police was playing on the radio, and he wanted to finish listening to it. Starky had called him thirty minutes ago and told him he was in, to be at Starky's house to meet the guy that was goingto pay his way. Now. Bobby was in the middle of eating supper with Freddie and his sister: burgers from the grill and ranch-flavored potato chips. When Bobby told Starky he was eating, Starky didn't say anything back. This was one of those times Starky skipped the "getting upset" phasealtogether, so Bobby said he'd be over in a minute. Starky lived on the other side of town in a flat home built in the seventies with small windows and lots of brick. Bobby made it in twenty minutes. "Roxanne" finally finished and Bobby cut the ignition, fingering the diamonds on his lucky key chain. There was a huge white Caddy with custom rims parked next to Starky's Hummer. The license plate said "BIG BLUE." Starky answered the door grinning so wide Bobby could see the space where he'd lost a tooth in a bar fight when he was young. The story changed every time he told it. In the five years Bobby'd known Starky, it had gone from some skinny preppy kid cold-cocking himwith a Zima to a gang of Mexicans with chains and crowbars. "Bobby Joker!" Starky said like he hadn't seen Bobby for years. Bobby entered, and Starky steered him toward the den. Two guys were there. One wore a huge Cowboy hat, a beige one with the sides curled up like the guy thought he was Dwight Yoakam. He was skinny with a mustache and had a huge belt buckle that shined so much Bobby couldn't see the design on it. The other guy was smaller, and wore a red and black plaid shirt with tight jeans. He'd slicked his hair back with gel, and his eyes were black and tiny. He didn't smile. The first one strolled up to Bobby with his hand out, saying, "Blue Johnston." "Blue?" Bobby said, shaking his hand. "Yep, like the color," Blue said, nodding his head. "And this is my associate." Cocking his head to the other guy, not giving a name. The hair-slick guy blinked at Bobby, and Bobby nodded back. "Bobby Joker, professional poker player." "That's what we're about to find out, now ain't it?" Blue said as he pulled Bobby completely into the room with his handshake. Bobby looked back at Starky, and Starky raised his eyebrows, a smirk glued to his face. Bobby said, "What do you mean?" Looking back at Blue who finally let go of his hand. "I mean, you gonna give us a demonstration of your amazing abilities before I put up ten large on you." Blue's grin disappeared, replaced by thin lips and a bony jaw. Bobby fingered his key chain and forced a smile. "Of course," he said. "I wouldn't have it no other way." Starky sat down at the kitchen table, a deck of red Bicycle cards in his hand. He pulled them out of the box and began shuffling. Bobby sat across from Starky, Blue to Bobby's left and Hair-Slick on Bobby's right. Starky set the cards down and handed out stacks of chips. "Starky here tells me you already won a few local tournaments and did pretty good at some state ones," Blue said. "Yeah," Bobby said. "I done pretty good." "So why you still driving around that piece of shit car if you're so good?" Blue stared straight at Bobby, his lips stuck together forming a crooked line, his brown mustache camped above them like a dirty caterpillar taking a nap. Bobby could feel Hair-Slick looking at him too. Starky stopped shuffling the cards. Bobby said, "It still runs. Why get something else?" Blue didn't blink, didn't move, just kept looking at Bobby with his bright blue eyes. After a few seconds, Bobby wondered if the guy was still breathing. Bobby continued staring at Blue, giving the man his best poker face, seeing now that this whole game wasn't about winning or losing. It was about how big his dick was. Bobby let his face muscles go slack and his eyes relax. He breathed through his nose and held his gaze steady, even when Rufus burst into the room barking his mangy head off, startling Blue into jerking his head toward the noise. Starky yelled at the mutt to shut the hell up or he'd kick him into next week, and the barking stopped in mid-yelp, the dog staring at his master with his head tilted. Rufus slinked off to the living room, and Starky asked if everybody was ready. Bobby, still with his gaze on Blue, turned to Starky and said, "Yeah, whenever you are." Score one for Bobby Joker, professional poker player. "Alright then, the game's Texas Hold'em. The last man standing wins." Fifteen minutes later, Hair-Slick crapped out. He went all in with a flush, three hearts showing on the board, two in his hand. Ace-king high. Bobby saw right through it, holding two kings in his hand to match the one on the board. On his last card, Starky dealt a five of hearts to match the five of spades in the middle giving Bobby a full house, kings over fives. Hair-Slick had bet big the previous three rounds, andBobby let him think he was the big shark, kept dangling the bait out to see if he'd take it. And he did, going all in with a greasy smile on his face. Fish in a barrel, Bobby thought as he announced he was all in too, sliding his chips into the middle, his own face as rigid as the chair he sat in. When Bobby flipped over his cards, Hair-Slick's face turned red, his eyes bulging like that character actor who always played the crazy guy in movies. Blue bust out laughing, and Hair-Slick pushed back from the table so hard that Starky's three neat stacks of chips wenttumbling. Hair-Slick huffed into the living room cursing under his breath and wasn't seen again for another hour, when Blue declared break time. Starky had almost two thirds of the chips at that point after three consecutive winning hands; a jack-high straight, trip-nines, and a pair of aces. Starky replenished everybody's Rolling Rocks while Blue stretched and asked if anyone minded he took off his boots. "They'renew and don't fit right just yet," he said. Blue shed the left one as Bobby said, "A buddy of mine was gonna buy a pair of those same boots today." Blue pulled the last one off and sat them beside the couch. "Yeah? I got mine today down at Shepler's. They were on sale." "Huh. Freddie went there and came back empty-handed. Said they weren't on sale in the store." "Yeah, they tried that with me. I told them it said in the paper they was on sale." "That's what I said Freddie should've done." "Get this. The salesman said it wasn't coming up in the computer, he couldn't do it. I told him go get the manager." Bobby smiled. "That's what I said to do." "Yeah. He didn't like that but screw him. What do I care what he likes? Fifty bucks is fifty bucks." Twenty minutes after the break, Starky was down a grand and went all in on three queens. Bobby had three sixes, but his gut told him he had a losing hand. He bowed out; Blue stayed in. Blue turned over for a ten-high straight, and Starky's hand bit the dust. Now Blue had well over half the chips. But that made him lazy, and in the next thirty minutes, he lost enough to almost even it up. Bobby felt like the big moment was coming any hand now. The super-hand, he called it, when both players were dealt winning hands. The problem was, only one player could win. Blue dealt the cards, and when Bobby looked at his, he felt a tingle on the top of his head, like he'd used too much of his dandruff shampoo and left it on all day. When he peeked at his cards, two one-eyed jacks stared back at him, and he could've sworn one of themsmiled. Bobby began the bet with fifty. It was a modest bet; he didn't want to scare Blue off. Blue's mustache twitched and he shoved a hundred into the middle, saying, "Raise you fifty." Bobby almost smiled but held it in check. He wanted to back-raise but thought it best to let Blue's ego take over, let the man think he was controlling the game. So Bobby gave Blue a funny look, one that said he thought Blue was full of shit, and he was staying in. Bobby made himself hesitate a second before pushing fifty more chips into the kitty. Blue burned the next card and dealt three more face up, the flop as the pros called it: a six of diamonds, a jack of diamonds and a ten of diamonds. Bobby felt that tingle on his head again. He had three jacks now, and it was on him to bet. If he passed, it might be tooobvious that he was leading Blue. But if he bet too high, it might scare the man. Bobby pushed another fifty to the middle of the table. Blue immediately raised a hundred. Bobby studied the cards on the board; he didn't see anything Blue could be betting on except a flush. There were three diamonds showing; he must have two in the hole. Bobby did something daring. He counted off a hundred, then four more hundred, and made a show out of sliding the chips into the pot. One of two things would happen now. Either it would spook Blue or embolden the man to dig in like he was defending the Alamo. The two players stared at each other, reading faces, trying to pick up the slightest hint what was going on in each of their minds. "Well?" Bobby said, looking Blue hard in the eyes. He kept his face blank, raising his left eyebrow a hair, daring Blue to do something, playing to the man's ego. "Shit or get off the pot." It was his best poker joke. Blue counted out four hundred and pushed it in the middle, then shoved in another four hundred right behind it, staring at Bobby the whole time. "It'll cost you four more," Blue said. Bobby pursed his lips together, narrowed his eyes, and bent the edge of his cards up so he could see them again, pretending he was considering what to do next. It was all part of the game. He slid another four hundred out, saying, "I'll see one more." Sensing something big going down, Hair-Slick and Starky returned to the table. Both watched Bobby and Blue like it was the final match at Wimbledon, looking from one to the other and back, waiting for somebody to slam one down the line. Blue burned a card and dealt the turn, the fourth card up. A six of clubs. That gave Bobby a full house, jacks over sixes, enough to beat the flush Blue had. He bet two hundred. He had to reel Blue in slowly, then yank him out of the water when the right time hit. Blue's mustache twitched again and he gave Bobby the hardest look of the night. It was coming. Bobby could sense it; he could feel it on his head, like peppermint ants were having a family picnic up there, all of them scurrying around to make sure everybody got somefood. "What you got over there?" Blue said. "It'll cost you to see." Blue slid five hundred in the kitty. "Raise you three." Bobby back-raised another two hundred. Blue came back with five more and muttered something about being a pussy. Starky whistled and turned to Bobby. Bobby looked up, then down, then up, then at his cards. Something suddenly didn't feel right. He looked at Blue looking at him. Blue was betting too heavy for a flush, or maybe he was just bluffing. Bobby bit his lip and took a deep breath, then slid six hundred to themiddle. Over half his chips were invested in this hand now, same as Blue. The bet was on Blue for another hundred. Bobby had left the door open so Blue could seal his own fate. "You think you're a real pro, don't you?" Blue said. Bobby picked at something between his teeth. "Enough to beat an amateur like you." Hair-Slick frowned and moved toward Bobby, but Blue held a hand up, stopping him mid-step. Blue said, "You got quite a mouth on you, pal." Do it, Bobby thought, do it. "Sitting there all smug and confident like you got all the goddam answers." Do it. "We met in an alley, they'd be only one of us leaving." This brought a smile to Hair-Slick's oily face. Do it. And Blue did. "All in," Blue said as he used both of his hands to push his chips in the middle. Bobby held his emotions in check, pretending to think about it a second, then pushed all his chips in, saying, "Maybe I'll get me a new car when I get back from Vegas." Starky sucked in his breath, and the sound seemed to evaporate from the air. "You really something, you know that?" Blue said. "Starky talked you up like you was the next coming of Christ. But you just another one of them punks that thinks they special. Another two-bit fuck-up with a fuckin' ratty-ass Geo Tracker." This got a laugh from Hair-Slick. "Starky," Blue said, looking to his left. "I can't believe you brought a loser like this to me. You just dropped a few points in my book." He looked back at Bobby. "I tell you what. I'll up the bet, right now, to something real. Since we ain't playing for no money, how about Iput my Caddy up against your piece of shit car?" As if to emphasize the wager, Blue slammed his car keys down on the table. Bobby kept his eyes fixed on his opponent. Blue really thought he was going to win with that measly flush. The guy was a total prick and deserved to lose his car. And at that moment, Bobby came to a realization. If he beat this guy, the asshole would be so upset he'dnever sponsor Bobby in a million years. Bobby wasn't going to Vegas no matter what, win or lose. So at the very least, Bobby could get a new car out of it, drive to Vegas in style for next year's tournament. Bobby said, "You sure you wanna do that?" "Hell yeah. What about you? You a chickenshit or a man?" This is going to be fun, Bobby thought. He pulled his keys out of his jeans pocket, rubbed the diamond nipples once for good luck, then set them on the table, saying, "Yeah, my Geo against your Caddy." Blue laughed and said, "Who's the amateur now, fuckhead?" He turned over his first two cards, both sixes, giving the man four of them. "Well," Blue said. "Mr. Professional Poker Player, whaddya think about that?" Slapping the table and laughing as he said it. Bobby's face remained blank as he saw that not only was Vegas out of the question, but now, he'd be walking home. Beat by an amateur with four of a kind. Hell, even his grandmama could win with four of a kind; it didn't take no expert to know that beat his jacks-over-sixes full house. Bobby's stomach heaved; he needed to go to the bathroom. He downed the rest of his Rolling Rock and set it on the table with a hollow thud as Blue burned the next card and dealt the river face up, the final card of the hand. Bobby stared at the new card and frowned, blinking a few times before he comprehended what it was. He closed his eyes and opened them again to make sure. Yeah, the card didn't change. It was the jack of clubs. Then, with a flourish, he flipped his two hole cards up. Four jacks. Blue's mouth dropped open, his cowboy hat in his hands now, and he stared at the jacks like they were pointing guns at him, sticking him up for a measly twenty bucks and change. Hair-Slick reached behind his back and came out with a pistol, yelling, "You fuckin' cheat. You motha-fuckin' cheat." He started forward just as Starky yanked out his Glock and put it out there for everyone to see. Starky said, "Put the gun away, man." Blue still hadn't moved. He sat there looking at the cards, a glassy film over his features, seemingly unaware of the situation developing around him. Hair-Slick hadn't put the gun away yet but he hadn't aimed it anywhere either. Starky said, "I'll repeat it again for the slow ones here … put ... the ... gun ... away." Hair-Slick turned his head to look at Starky, all three hundred pounds of him just a few feet away, holding a Glock in his hand. He narrowed his small eyes and clinched his jaw. Then Rufus bounded into the room, drawn by his master's stern voice, and began yelping for noother reason than to be heard. "Man," Starky said over the racket. "I just had my carpets cleaned. Now I ain't gonna tell you again, put the goddamned gun away." Rufus was still barking when Starky looked down at him and told him to shut the fuck up or he'd clip his damn balls off and he meant it this time. Hair-Slick's face went slack, and he jerked his gun hand toward Starky. Starky saw it even though he was yelling at Rufus, and fired three times, the first shot hitting Hair-Slick in the leg, the other two catching him in the stomach and chest as he raised his arm. Hair-Slicklurched backwards as he squeezed off a single shot that finally shut Rufus up. For good. Bobby watched as Hair-Slick dropped to the floor motionless, his head turned to the side, black eyes open and staring at him. Blue never moved the whole time, the whole scene taking place like he was at home propped up in front of the TV, a fifth of vodka and a Xanax inhis system. Starky leaned over and picked Rufus up. The dog was limp in his big hands, and he held the little guy to his chest. He didn't say a word as he looked around at Bobby and Blue, his face quivering, then carried the dog out the back door. For the first time since Blue put his keys on the table, his eyes met Bobby's. Bobby wanted to say something like, "Keep the car. It ain't no big deal," but he couldn't bring himself to speak. In fact, he couldn't bring himself to do anything. He could only think of Hair-Slicklying on the floor ruining Starky's carpet. It was Blue who spoke first. "Willis was an asshole anyway." Bobby looked over at Hair-Slick, then back at Blue. "Willis? His name's Willis?" Blue nodded. "It was." Bobby grunted, and Blue looked down at the cards again, saying, "She's only got about forty thousand on her." Bobby squinted his eyes together. "Huh?" "I've changed her oil every three thousand on the dot. And in the winter, you gotta let her warm up a few minutes before you try and push her. Man, you're gonna love the heated seats, the first time I ever used those-" "Wait," Bobby interrupted. "You're letting me have the car?" Blue wrinkled his forehead. "Have the car? You won it. It's already yours." Bobby didn't think he heard right. "It's my car?" "Those your four jacks, ain't they?" Bobby nodded. "Well, that settles it then." Blue stood up and walked out the front door. He came back a minute later with a piece of paper in his hand. He set it down on the table, produced a pen from his pocket and signed his name. "Here's the title. You're all set." Blue slid it towardhim. Bobby reached out to get it but Blue didn't let go, adding, "On one condition." Bobby cocked his head to the side. "What?" "You let me go to Vegas with you." Bobby's eyes widened, and he was about to say something when two shots rang out and blood splattered all over his face. He pushed away from the table and jumped up as Blue collapsed to the floor beside him, half his head missing. There stood Starky on the other sideof the table, holding his Glock in an outstretched hand. "What the fuck!" Bobby yelled, wiping his face with his hands. "They killed my dog," Starky said. "Fuck, Starky. Blue didn't do it. It was that asshole back there you already shot. Why the fuck you have to shoot Blue?" "He came with Blue, he was Blue's guy. May as well have been Blue." Starky's eyes were splotchy and red. "Goddam it, Starky. You just fucked everything up." "What do you mean? I can get the carpets cleaned again. Carpet guy won't say a word. Never does." "No, not that. Jeezus." Bobby stopped cleaning his face, realizing he was just smearing the brains and blood around, making it worse. He said, "Blue was still gonna sponsor me to go to Vegas. But you had to go and fuckin' kill him instead." "He was what?" "You heard me." Bobby's voice took on an edge. His shot at Vegas was blown all to hell like half of Blue's head. "The guy was still taking me to Vegas." "Even after you humiliated him?" "Yeah." Starky shrugged and threw his gun on the table. "He ain't now." Then he saw the paper. "What's this?" He picked it up. "That's Blue's Caddy. He signed it over to me." "There you go, then." "There I go what?" Bobby was so pissed now that he thought about picking up Starky's gun and shooting him. Maybe aim for his pecker. Starky handed the blood-stained paper to Bobby. "He already signed it over; it's yours." "I don't care about the damn car. I wanted Vegas." Starky threw his hands up. "That's what I'm trying to tell you, man. Look, I know a guy'd give you enough for the Caddy to take care of the buy-in." Vegas! The tournament was still in his cards. Bobby looked at the dead guys on the floor. "What about these two?" he said. "They was never here, you catch me? Ain't nothing you gotta worry about." Bobby looked from the floor back to Starky, to the floor, and back to Starky again. He frowned and started to say something, then held it back. He fingered the Caddy's keys. "It's only got forty thousand on it," he said. "So I should get a lot more than ten grand for it." "I could get you enough to buy a whore and a steak for every night you there." "Shit, man, it's got heated seats. A Caddy like that should go for at least twenty. That's more than a few whores." Starky shot Bobby a deadpan stare. "Vegas got some expensive whores."