When last we saw Tony Valentine -- former cop, lifelong misanthrope, and legendary catcher of casino cheats -- he was just coming up for air after a close brush with the afterlife in his first outing, the acclaimed Grift Sense.
This time around, it's personal. Tony Valentine's ex-partner Doyle Flanagan has been blown to pieces by a car bomb. Shortly before his death, Doyle had been filling Valentine in on the details of his latest, most baffling case -- an impressive $6 million blackjack scam at Atlantic City's legendary Bombay casino.
Valentine determines that the only way to bring his friend's killers to justice is to crack the Bombay heist himself. But standing between Valentine and his goal is a head-spinning assortment of ruthless gangsters, crooked croupiers, eccentric millionaires, and Croatians with bad haircuts. His only ally: an irresistibly enigmatic female wrestler.
With diamond-hard prose, triple-crossing plot twists, and a deliciously noir-inflected atmosphere, Funny Money finds James Swain more than living up to his promise as a razor-sharp storyteller with unlimited surprises up his sleeve.
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December 31, 1999
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Excerpt from Funny Money by James Swain
Chapter One: Heat
"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.
"What would you say?" Valentine asked her.
"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.
"And that would bring heat, to use your expression."
"All right, I give up. What does the crossroader say?"
"He says, 'You're right, there are only fifty cards.' And he pushes the deck to the center of the table. By agreeing with the first player, he takes the heat off himself."
"What does he do then?"
"He waits," Valentine said.
"Another player will inevitably pick up the deck and count them, and he'll say, 'Wait a minute, there's fifty-two.' And that will put all the heat on him."
Mabel made a funny face.
"No wonder you like putting these people in jail," she said.
Valentine escorted Mabel home. It was a beautiful place, this town on the west coast of Florida they'd both retired to, the breeze filled with the Gulf of Mexico's warm spirits. As they walked the hundred yards that separated their New England-style clapboard houses, they stopped to inspect a brand new Lexus parked in a neighbor's driveway, the sales sticker prominently displayed in the side window. They were of the generation that were greatly fascinated not only by the astronomical cost of things these days, but also by people stupid enough to fork out the money.
At Mabel's house they stopped again, this time to smell the seductive night-blooming jasmine in her front yard.
"Are we a couple of squares or what?" she said.
"I like being a square," he said.
"You could have fooled me."
"What do you mean?"
"Your life is exciting. I envy you."
Going inside, he did a quick tour of the downstairs, then checked the back door and windows. Being old made you a target, and he feared that Mabel would one day lose her valuables to a burglar. He found her waiting in the foyer.
"Everything's shipshape," he said. "You know, you really ought to consider getting a dog."
It was a conversation they'd had many times. Mabel was going to get a dog when she was good and ready. She gave him a peck on the cheek. "Thanks for the fun evening."
"You're welcome. Listen, I've got a proposition for you."
"How would you like to come work for me? I need someone to answer the phone and act as a buffer with clients. You could even help me with some cases."
Mabel hesitated. She liked Tony and sensed that he liked her. But he lived in a different world, one that she was not sure she'd be comfortable in.
"But I don't know anything about casinos or cheating."
"No, but you're one of the best judges of character I've ever met, and that's half the battle when it comes to spotting crossroaders. I'll teach you the basics. It'll be fun."
"You think so?"
He was making it sound easy. If Tony had impressed anything upon her, it was that crossroaders weren't like other criminals. They used sophisticated sleight-of-hand, cameras, and hidden computers to commit their crimes. They were smart people, and it took even smarter people to catch them.
"Do you have any books I can read, so I don't sound too stupid answering your phone?"
"I've got a whole library."
"And you promise to help with the technical stuff?"
Mabel hesitated and saw him smile. He was going to make it fun, she realized. She gave him another peck on the cheek.
"It sounds wonderful," she said.
Valentine was settling into the La-Z-Boy in his living room when the phone rang. He never answered the phone, preferring to let the caller go into voice mail and leave a message. He considered it one of the great perks of working for himself.
The ringing stopped. He waited a minute, then dialed into voice mail. The message was from Doyle Flanagan, his ex-partner in Atlantic City. He dialed Doyle's cell number and caught his friend as he exited a McDonald's drive-through.
"Don't you ever go home?"
Doyle had retired from the force six months after him. Finding it impossible to live on his pension, he'd gone to work as a private investigator. "I wish. You have a chance to look at the surveillance tape I overnighted?"
"Aw, for the love of Christ," Doyle said.
"The bitch shortchanged me."
Valentine listened as Doyle went back through the drive-through and argued with the cashier, letting his hamburger go cold over twenty-five cents. Doyle's tape was still in Valentine's VCR, and he picked up the remote and hit play.
The tape was from The Bombay, the largest casino in Atlantic City. It annoyed him that New Jersey Gaming Control let its casinos record at extended play in order to conserve tape. It made the tapes hard to view and was a strain on the eyes.
The Bombay tape showed six people sitting at a blackjack table. The player in question -- who Doyle had identified in a note as being European -- was in his late thirties and had hair that stuck out at odd angles, like electricity was playing with it. He was winning big, his nervous mannerisms suggesting his play was not on the square.
"You think he's cheating?" Doyle asked.
"He sure acts guilty," Valentine said.
"Guy sweats a lot, doesn't he?"
"Like a whore in church."
Doyle dropped his cell phone. Picking it up, he said, "I've broken so many cell phones Liddy finally bought me one made of stainless steel. Any idea what he's doing?"
"I've got a couple of theories."
"I really want to bust this joker," Doyle said.
His partner was challenging him. Valentine watched the European play a few more hands. He heard his partner humming along to a song on his radio. Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey."
"Got it," Valentine said.
"What's he doing?" Doyle said.
"I've been watching the way he places his bets. When he bets big, he's very direct. It's like, bam, here's my money. He knows he's going to win the hand."
"How's he doing that?"
"He's got a partner at the table marking the high cards," Valentine said. "The European is at first base, which means the top card for each round is his first card. Whenever he sees a marked card at the start of a round, he bets heavy."
"But he doesn't know what his second card will be," Doyle said.
"No, and he might lose sometimes. But over the course of an evening, he'd have an unbeatable edge."
"Who's marking the cards?"
Valentine stared at the other five players at the table. Marking cards is a felony in New Jersey and punishable by four and a half years in prison. His eyes locked on a chain-smoking beauty that reminded him of a young Audrey Hepburn.
"The lady at third base," Valentine said. "She's as tight as a drum."
"You're a genius," Doyle said.
"How much is The Bombay into these crooks for?"
"Come on, be serious."
Doyle coughed into the phone. Valentine sat up straight in his recliner. Casinos got ripped off every day -- Las Vegas lost a hundred million each year -- but it went out the door in dribs and drabs. Big scores happened, but mostly through card counters. As far as he knew, no hustler had ever stolen six million from any single casino. It was too much money.
"You're positive about this," Valentine said.
"The casino confirmed it. Uh-oh," Doyle said, starting his engine.
"Looks like I've got company."
"The European. I made his white van yesterday when he was leaving The Bombay."
"Get the hell out of there."
Doyle's tires screeched as he threw the car into reverse. "Shit, the passenger window is going down..."
"Get the hell out of there!"
"Someone's pointing something at me. Looks like a transistor radio...."
Valentine started to say something, then heard a loud Boom! that sounded like a thousand doors being slammed. He yelled into the phone, but his partner did not reply. He could faintly hear people screaming inside the McDonald's. He waited for someone to come outside, pick up the phone, and tell him what in God's name was happening.
Then Doyle's cell phone died.
Valentine called every cop he knew in Atlantic City. After ten minutes he found one who was on duty, and got put on hold. He began to pray. In his mind, he knew what had happened. Could picture it as clearly as the hand in front of his face. Yet it took hearing the cop coming back on the line and saying, "Tony, I'm sorry." before he accepted the fact that his best friend of forty years was dead.
The cop stayed on the line, trying to console him. Valentine struggled to say something, but the words weren't there. His eyes started to burn. Then the room got very small.
Then he put the phone down and cried.