The second the elevator doors sprang shut, Stani pulled a gun on the rest of us. I felt the floor drop beneath me, and my stomach sink down into my shoes. Then Stani stuck his empty hand out and said, "I want it all! Now!"

          Mouth and Buddha gave their wallets over right away. I was praying he wouldn't rob the watch Abbott was wearing, or I'd have to think about stopping him.

          "Fuck old friends, huh?" said Rooster, holding out his wallet, too. Only Stani wouldn't take it. He pointed the barrel at Rooster's other pocket, and said, "Don't get slick with me. I want the money clip."

          That's when Rooster handed over a half-inch of fifty-dollar bills clamped between the fangs of a metal cobra.

          Abbott was standing straight, like a stone statue. He had a shit-eating grin on his face. And right then I would have called any bet he made, no matter how big, just to see the look in his eyes behind those shades.

          "You're bluffing," Abbott said, cold. "You don't got the guts to win at poker—you're not shootin' me."

          "Try me, smart-ass," said Stani, squeezing the gun tighter in his hand.

          "Pull the trigger!" Abbott shouted, pounding his chest, "I'm bulletproof, Prick!"

          The elevator hit bottom, and the jolt shot up my spine. Then the doors popped open and Stani stepped in between them.

          "Gimme what you got, kid!" barked Stani, shoving the gun at me now.

          I should have shit myself. But I didn't.

          I saw my reflection in the polished panel with the buttons for the different floors. I wasn't sure who was under that disguise—the backwards baseball cap, headphones and dark glasses. Only it didn't even feel like me anymore.

          There wasn't more than six dollars in my pocket, but I couldn't let that bastard Abbott gain an inch on me. Not in the tournament. Not in his math class. Not anywhere.

          So I pulled up everything inside of me and said, "I think you're bluffin', too!"

          "Yeah? You gonna risk your life on that, kid?" mocked Stani.

          "I'M ALL IN!" I shouted, with more sweat rolling down Stani's face than mine.

          "Poker psychos—the two of you!" Stani said, slapping the button for the top floor as he backed out.

          All the way up, Rooster pounded the elevator doors with his fist, screaming, "Shit! Shit! Shit!"

          Mouth and Buddha were yelling at him to stop before he broke something and got us stranded there all night.

          I kept my eyes glued to Abbott, trying to read him. I was hoping to pick up on anything I could use against him later.

          It was going to be the five of us at the final table of the poker tournament. But in my mind, it was already just him and me.

          Then Abbott stuck his wrist out, checking the watch he'd stole from Dad.

          "In about sixteen hours or so, you losers can crown me champ again, and punch my free ticket to that Vegas tournament for a shot at the big money and some real competition," smirked Abbott. "Oh, and kid, don't ever pretend to be that brave with me, 'cause it'll cost you."

          My insides were shaking from having that gun in my face. Only I wouldn't let on for anything. I turned up my headphones and walked out of that elevator cool, like nothing had happened. But by the time I got home I was soaked in sweat, and the taste didn't come back into my mouth until the next morning.

 

Chapter One

          It had been almost a year since Dad died in that hospital bed from a stroke. He didn't get much exercise, and wasn't the kind of father who could teach you sports—not unless you counted playing cards that way. But he taught me lots of other stuff, and was always my real best friend.

          Dad's the one who first called me "Huck." It started my sophomore year in high school. I thought I was really something at poker and would challenge him. I'd clean up against my friends in nickel and dime games. But every week, Dad would beat me out of my allowance, and I'd have to do double-chores to get paid again.

          Mom finally threw a fit, and laid down the law.

          "No more gambling in this house," she demanded. "If you two wanna keep playing, you'll play for fun.

          "How the hell is it gambling when it's all my money?" Dad tried to hook her.

          But she wouldn't bite.

          Dad was the best poker player in Caldwell. He'd won the tournament at Saint Bart's Rec. Center three-years running, and that makes you somebody in a town that's been smacked sideways like this one.

          It's crazy to think of a church holding a poker tournament. But Father Dineros has been doing it for five years straight now, ever since that big brushfire hopped the main road here, burning down close to forty houses and the auto parts factory that never got rebuilt. People come as far as six townships over to play, and it usually takes two whole weekends to finish. Most everybody in Caldwell treats it like a celebration, and all the stores, diner, highway motel and gas station get a lot more business.

          There's a $150 entry fee, and the winner gets to wear a silver watch that Father Dineros had on when he got blessed by the Pope in Rome. Then the next year, the watch gets passed on to the new champion.

          But the real reason so many people are hyped to play at Saint Bart's is because Father Dineros convinced a famous Las Vegas casino into giving the winner a free seat in its biggest poker tournament—one with a $12-million pot to the winner.

          "Our tournament's more sanctified than Bingo. There's no cash prize, and every penny goes to keep the recreation center open. That's charity," Father Dineros would say. "As for the Las Vegas connection—I believe Sin City owes this town something back."

          From Caldwell it's just a ninety-minute drive up I-15 to Vegas, where poker's almost a religion. And after all those people lost their homes and jobs, lots of them took their chances trying to get even in the casinos. Only most of them just dug a deeper hole for themselves.

 
The Hand You're Dealt



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