I carefully considered the cards in front of me.
With a shrug of my shoulders, I said, “Hit me.”
The dealer dealt another card, bringing my total to 19. I motioned that I would stand, and waited for the dealer to dole out cards to the other two players at the table. My mind was already busy calculating my winnings as well as carefully keeping track of the remaining cards in the deck.
Even before the dealer turned up his “hole” card, I knew he only had 17. Since the dealer had to stay on 17 or higher, I knew I had won another hand, netting myself even more money for the night.
I guess I should point out just how I knew the dealer only had 17. Well there is counting cards, and I’ve gotten to be fair at it, if I do say so myself, but even the best card counter can’t say for 100% what a card is going to be. I can’t 100% of the time either, but if the dealer looks at their hole card—well, that’s a different story. When the dealer’s visible card is either a face card or an ace, the dealer has to look at their hole card (the one face down) to see if they have Blackjack. This happens about five out of every thirteen hands. And those times it does happen … well, then I can say 100% of the time what the dealer’s card is. And it ain’t by counting cards.
Maybe I should step back even further to point out just how I can know this. See, I’ve never been what you’d call normal. I was born with what my mother called a “little disability,” and she was sure right about that, but over the years I’ve learned how to turn it into at least some advantages. It seemed only fair after all.
I was born telepathic. As in hear the thoughts of others. Yeah. May sound interesting, but trust me, for the most part, it’s a pain in the ass. It may help me out sometimes, but mostly it only hindered me. All I’d ever wanted growing up was to be normal. But since we can’t change what we are, it’s best to make do with what is.
Some might say that using my telepathy to win money playing Blackjack was wrong, but I figured it was only fair. It wasn’t like my telepathy made it very easy for me to hold down a “real” job. I couldn’t count the number of times I’d learned something about one of my bosses and had to quit or told them something I shouldn’t have and was fired.
Most of the time, I only hit the casinos like this when I really needed the money to get by. And if I was really thinking about moving back to Bon Temps and actually settling down, I was going to need the money until I could figure out what I was doing.
I stayed at the Blackjack table for another hour. The dealer had just rotated out, a new dealer having been told by the pit boss to change out with him early. From reading both dealers’ minds, I could see that they didn’t know why they were being made to rotate ahead of schedule, but it was enough for me to decide to call it a night and go to the cage to collect my winnings.
It had been a lucky night. Between what card counting skills I had and my telepathy, I’d done pretty well. Since it was only about 38% of the time that I could actually use my telepathy to read the dealer, I was left to chance and card counting the rest of the time. Still, between the three factors, I managed to cash out with a little over two thousand dollars. That should be more than enough to get me settled in at Bon Temps if that was what I chose to do, or at the very least tie up loose ends before I moved on again.
As I moved through the crowded floor of the Starlight Casino, headed for the back parking lot, my mind was running through the events of the past several weeks that brought me back to northern Louisiana. And in specific, at my stopping point at the Starlight in Bossier City. In some ways, I guess it was the events of the past several years that led me to this point.
My parents had passed away in a flash-flood when I was only seven. My Gran had wanted to take me and my older brother Jason in, but the state had deemed her to be an unstable home as she was in failing health. Instead, we’d ended up in foster care. Gran had passed away only a few years later.
Living in foster care had been rough. No. It had been hell.
Since I wasn’t exactly normal, I’d always had trouble fitting in and folks had a real hard time being around me. I knew too much and as kids will do, I tended to repeat the things I’d hear. Truthfully, it freaked most people out. I was labeled a “trouble maker” pretty early on, so the state decided to split me and Jason up in the hopes of placing us both with foster families more easily.
When Jason turned eighteen, he returned to Bon Temps. I hadn’t seen him or talked to him since I was seven.
Over the years, I went through a lot of bad foster care parents—some worse than others—but eventually I got placed with an old woman near Bonita, Louisiana. She reminded me a lot of what I remembered about my Gran. She’d been a little uncomfortable with my unusual nature, but Jeanie was mostly accepting of me. She didn’t have any other foster kids because of her age, and I stayed with her for six years, until I turned eighteen and the state made me move out.
For the next eight years, I moved around the country from place to place. I didn’t like staying in one place too long, but then, Jeanie told me I had trust issues. Maybe I did.
Mostly I got work waitressing. It was easy enough work to do and you could find work waitressing just about anywhere. Plus, waitressing was pretty much the same at any bar, restaurant or club. Waitressing also made great practice for my telepathy. I had to be around people on a daily basis to practice keeping my shields up so I didn’t have to hear every thought of every person around me. Otherwise, I might have really become the “Crazy Sookie” most of the foster system knew me as.
When times were tough and I was in a jamb and really needing the money, I’d just head to a casino. Poker was easier to make money at since I could read the minds of all the players and know exactly what all of the cards were, but sometimes I liked the challenge of Blackjack since I couldn’t count on my telepathy alone.
I was in-between jobs and moving from my last short-term residence in Springfield, Missouri, so I had decided to swing south and stop in to see Jeanie in Bonita. It had been almost two years since I’d last stopped by to see her, so I’d been looking forward to the visit.
I was surprised to find a letter waiting for me when I dropped in. She told me it had come for me almost three months before, but she didn’t have a way of getting a hold of me to send it on.
Turned out, my Great-Uncle Bartlett, who had been in charge of my Gran’s estate after she died, had recently passed on himself. My Gran’s will had evidently stipulated that my folks’ place was to go to my brother when he turned eighteen, and her home was suppose to go to me when I turned came to age. I’d never known since I’d left the state as soon as I turned eighteen. From the letter I received from Bartlett’s lawyer, it seemed he’d taken possession of my Gran’s house after she died and I hadn’t returned home. His will had left the stipulation that the house would go to me if I returned to claim it. The letter said I had six months to make my claim.
It had been a long time since I’d had a home. Even as nice as Jeanie had been to me, it hadn’t been a home. I figured I’d return to Bon Temps and at least see if it couldn’t be home again. At the very least, I figured I could spit on Uncle Bartlett’s grave.
My thoughts were still focused on how satisfying it would feel to get that little bit of revenge on Uncle Bartlett when a cold hand clamped down on my wrist.
“You’ll be coming with me,” a gravelly voice said.
I didn’t turn around; one hand was still on the door to the outside. I could see my beat-up little blue sedan parked only one row back. I just needed to reach it and I was home free.
“I don’t think so. I was just leaving,” I quickly replied.
The cold hand spun me around. Too late, I realized why his hand was cold. My shields had been firmly in place from my walk through the main floor of the casino, but I dropped it as I took in the vampire gripping my arm. He was only a little taller than me, but the snarl on his face sure made him seem bigger. He was dressed in black pants and a black long-sleeved shirt with brown hair slicked back from his face. He might have been handsome if his lips hadn’t been pulled back in a snarl, exposing a hint of sharp fangs.
Instinctively, I reached out with my mind to see what his intentions were, only to be met with silence. After experiences I’d had with foster parents, I wasn’t willing to go anywhere near vampires and had always been able to avoid them until now. I knew from seeing them at a distance that their skin had a sort of glow to it, but every time I’d seen that telltale glow, I’d made tracks in the other direction.
The vampire’s hand tightened around my wrist as he propelled me in front of him down a hallway off to my right. Before I could form a response, I was pushed into a small, grey-colored room. I quickly noted it seemed soundproof and had no windows. Another vampire was sitting almost leisurely in a chair in front of a table. The vampire that had been manhandling me shoved me into the chair on the opposite side of the table. I knew better than to physically challenge a vampire—I’d heard how strong they were—but I was still sorely tempted to kick the snarling vampire in the shin.
“Thank you, Winston. You may wait outside,” the seated vampire calmly said.
I almost chuckled at hearing the snarling vampire’s name, it certainly didn’t sound like the typical vampire’s name, but I knew better than to say or do anything for the moment.
Instead, I looked at the seated vampire. His skin gave that telltale glow too, but for the most part, he was very ordinary looking. The kind of person that you could see or even talk to for a while and then they could just disappear in a crowd. He was however dressed in an expensive looking dark blue pinstripe suit. As he leaned back in the chair across from me, he unbuttoned his suit jacket with one hand and leaned back comfortably.
“Tell me who else you are working with and who is running your little group,” the vampire commanded.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I answered truthfully. “I’m not working with or for anyone.”
The vampire studied me carefully, still comfortably leaned back in his chair. He crossed one leg over his knee as he folded his hands over his stomach.
“I know you and those dealers cannot be working alone. I have questioned them both, but neither is able to tell me about your operation, meaning they must have been heavily glamored to keep them from answering my questions. So it is quite apparent that another vampire is organizing this. I want to know who,” he replied. His voice was low and deadly as he leaned forward and braced his hands on the table between us.
I’d heard enough about vampires to know that glamor was some form of hypnosis, but I was still having trouble following his reasoning.
“Look, I don’t know any of your dealers, and I sure don’t know any vampires,” I told him earnestly.
He leaned forward even more and drew in a deep breath. Almost to himself he said, “You do not smell of vampire.” He looked thoughtful for a moment, and then added, his voice raising as he spoke, “You must have been working with those two dealers. It is not possible that you simply got that lucky. How did you know what the cards were? How were those dealers signaling you?” His hand slammed down on the table, leaving a sizeable dent in the metal. “It is not wise to cheat in a vampire owned casino!” he shouted.
Well, no shit. I wouldn’t have come in here if I’d known it was vampire owned, I thought to myself.
“I’m just traveling on my way through from Missouri. I don’t know anyone here,” I answered. I’d long ago learned that giving bits of truth was the best way to lie.
Before I could even register the movement, the vampire had come around the table, grabbing me by the neck and dragging me backwards out of my chair to pin me against the wall. My feet dangled in the air as he growled up at me. All pretense of civility was gone, replaced by unadulterated rage.
“Tell me now how you cheated that money from this casino,” he growled.
My eyes couldn’t help but focus on his elongated fangs. I could feel something pressing on my mind as he stared into my eyes. It didn’t take a genius to figure that I needed to give him some answers and quick.
“I was counting cards. No one helped me,” I said in a wheezing voice. Again, it was a half-truth, but hopefully it was convincing enough.
The vampire dropped me to my feet and I collapsed roughly to the floor on my knees, unable to keep my balance. I took deep sucking breaths in as my vision blurred and bright colors flashed behind my eyelids. As I struggled to regain my breath while cradling my aching throat, the vampire paced a few steps before throwing the door open with a thud.
“Winston! Get in here and get this woman out of my sight,” he shouted down the hall. Turning back towards me, he said, “You would be wise never to set foot in this casino again. I do not care to have even a small amount of money cheated from me.”
Well, counting cards wasn’t really illegal, but no casino on earth liked it, and they could ask you to leave if they caught you, but I wasn’t about to correct this vampire.
Grateful tears blurred my eyes at his words. I was surprised to realize just how afraid I had actually been that my cheating in a vampire casino might be what finally did me in.
This time, when Winston came in to drag me out of the room, I went more than willingly. I’d sure as hell learned my lesson. Humans may not be quick enough to catch on, but vampires weren’t so easy to fool. I’d make damn sure not to cheat in any casino that was vampire owned, or even vampire affiliated in any way again.
My hopes at getting away from this casino and never looking back were dashed when I realized the parking lot Winston was dragging me to was almost deserted and definitely not where I had parked. Something was very wrong, so I started digging my heels in and yelling.
I found myself once again slammed against a wall, this time with a hand clamped over my mouth.
“Quiet, bitch!” Winston snarled. I felt that strange pressing on my mind again as he stared into my eyes.
He lowered his hand and I began screaming again. It was quickly quieted though by Winston’s fist connecting against my jaw. As I pressed a hand over my jaw, I tasted the coppery tang of my own blood filling my mouth and trickling out at the corner. Straightening up and looking back at the vampire pushing me against the wall, I saw his face morph from a mask of confusion to what seemed like pleasure.
He closed his eyes and inhaled. “You smell sweet,” he said quietly, his fangs visibly running out.
My yell for help was cut-off by his hand closing over my mouth and wrenching my head to the side as he struck at my neck.
As Winston drew deeply on my neck, I continued trying to scream, the noises coming out muffled. My hands flailed uselessly, trying to bat him away from my neck.
My strength was draining as I realized this would indeed be my end. I would be drained to death, all because I hadn’t been smart enough to make sure the casino I was cheating was human owned and run.
“Just what are you doing, Winston?” a deep voice asked.
As Winston pulled his fangs from my neck, I felt my eyes roll backwards and darkness descended.