Before Sean had time to do more than glance at the security office, the jackalope was already calling heartily, “Hey! Fargus! Git over here an’ meet the newest member of yer security team.”
The large black wolf turned his head. Then he stood up.
Sean hadn’t realized that Fargus had been sitting. The black wolf towered over him, at least a foot taller than Sean’s lean five-eight, probably twice his weight, too. The indigo “Sultanate” uniform seemed barely able to contain him, unlike Sean’s, which hung off his frame and crackled with starched uncertainty whenever he moved.
Fargus peered down at him. “Ay? Don’t look big ‘nuff to toss out a cub in the slots.”
“He ain’t on tossin’, he’s on sniffin’.” The jackalope draped a heavy arm over Sean’s shoulder, making the red wolf stagger. “This boy got a gift for findin’ out where the snakes are hidin’. An’ besides,” he said to Fargus’s impassive look, “Already hired him.”
The black wolf stared Sean in the eye. “Right,” he said.
“Lissen,” the jackalope said. “You got anyone rustlin’ up trouble there on the floor? Anyone you can’t figure how they’re doin’ it?”
Fargus turned back to the bank of monitors and rubbed his chin. “Ay. Maybe.”
“A’right!” The jackalope smacked Sean between the shoulder blades, propelling him forward almost into Fargus’s broad chest. “So set Sean here on it. He don’t solve it, you can give him whatever job he wants.”
“Wait,” Sean said, but Fargus had already shrugged his assent and the jackalope was on his way out of the room. Sean’s uniform rustled as he stepped forward to get a better look at the screens that occupied Fargus’s attention.
By the clock on the far wall, it was eighteen minutes before Fargus acknowledged Sean’s presence. He tapped a screen with one claw.
“There,” he said. “Lemur, red dress.”
Sean saw her sitting at the blackjack table, fingers fidgeting over a large stack of chips. Sean watched her play three hands, winning two. “I don’t see what she’s doing.”
“Counting. Maybe.” Fargus rubbed away a spot of dirt on the monitor, just where the lemur’s leg was. “But who cares? Nice ass.”
“Uh.” Sean looked away from the monitor. “I thought there was someone who was cheating.”
“He’s not in yet.” Fargus waved.
Honestly, Sean thought the elegant snow leopard next to the lemur wore his expensive suit much better than the lemur wore her dress. “Is that all you do? Just look at people?”
The wolf’s brow lowered. “Mostly,” he growled, “we look for people causin’ a ruckus an’ break it up before it gets too bad. Happen we catch someone skimmin’ the cards, or the dice, maybe twice a week. People dinna come in here ta cheat.”
“Sorry. I just meant—”
“I got yer meanin’.” Fargus tapped another monitor. “People steal, too. Dealers usually spot ‘em an’ signal us. Don’t want to cause a fuss at the table.” In a flat monotone, he showed Sean where the dealers’ alerts would come in, how to check the schedules to find which table the dealer was occupying, and how to switch to the camera showing that table. “Got two fellas in the other room watchin’ for trouble. So yeah, I look at a little ass from time to time. Perk o’the job.” He glared at Sean.
The red wolf sighed and shut his muzzle.
The people in the monitors were all different species, but all fell into a few distinct types. There were the social gamblers, who seemed to view their chips as the price of having a few drinks with their buddies. There were the casual gamblers, whose inexperienced optimism showed in their perked ears and bright eyes every time a card was dealt or a die rolled. And there were the serious gamblers, over half the people, the ones who barely reacted differently to a win than a loss, simply scooping the chips in front of them and resuming their gambling, as though celebrating would ruin their system.
Fargus’s cameras unerringly found females in scanty clothing, low-cut dresses that showed off enhanced cleavage, short skirts revealing elegant thighs and calves, or often both. Sleek red foxes, graceful black panthers, restless cheetahs, a white rat, an ocelot, a gazelle, a lioness.
Sean took out his cards and shuffled them gently, letting the soft tingle soothe his paws. When he turned over the top card, he saw the Queen of Hearts and felt reassured. Thanks, Ma. He wanted to ask her how he could prove himself, how he could make Fargus accept him, but he couldn’t keep running to her for every little question he had. He’d have to wait until there was an actual problem, until he could narrow it down to a specific issue.
He still wasn’t sure how he was going to do this, his first real job. The jackalope seemed convinced that Sean could help him, more so than Sean was. He might not have, had his mother’s cards not told him to take the job, and it was enough money that he could afford an apartment.
Not that living on the street was all that bad in Vegas. But Ma’d wanted more for him. She didn’t care so much if he graduated high school—smarts ain’t what’cha write on paper, she’d always said—but she wanted him to have a roof over his head, and a nice chair to sit in, and a bed without lumps. Didn’t matter where. He’d come to Vegas to escape the perpetual damp of the swamp. He was sure she approved.
“There.” Fargus stabbed at the monitor. Sean put his cards in his pocket and leaned forward, perking his ears.
At first he thought Fargus meant the tall, leggy giraffe pressing the button on the one-cent “Mony Mony” machine over and over again. But the black wolf’s claw was resting over the image of a long-eared hare, dressed in a powder-blue jumpsuit, at the adjacent “Lucky Baseball” machine.
He looked to Sean like a casual gambler. His ears perked as he played, clearly enjoying himself, but the resolution on the camera wasn’t good enough for Sean to see his results.
“Wins a grand a night on penny slots.”
Sean peered closer to the monitor.
“Don’t know why he doesn’t move to the dollar slots. Or the fives. We’d have to throw him out if he started winning thousands a night.” He paused and scratched the side of his muzzle. “Or if we could figure out how he’s doing it.”
Sean stared down at the monitor. Some kind of bonus game had come up on the hare’s screen. Animated foxes and rabbits played baseball, ringing up scores in numbers large enough for him to see: 50, 80, 20, 100. “An’ by ‘we’ I mean you,” Fargus said.
“Aye.” The wolf grinned.
The hare was picking up and moving. “Can I go down to the floor?”
He had to keep the uniform on, which was going to make things trickier. He knew the hare had to be aware of what he was doing, that he would run away from anyone who presented the appearance of authority. The dark purple and the casino’s insignia were as unmistakable as they were foreign to him, still. He’d have to be careful.
There was a quiet table in the corner of the sports book from which he could see the hare at his new station. He drew out his cards and held them, shutting out the clamor of the sporting games and people around him, letting the herbal smoke of the cigarettes block out other smells. Eyes on the hare, he shuffled the cards and dealt out three.
Jack of Spades. Three of Hearts. King of Diamonds.
He would’ve been surprised if no diamonds had come up in an affair involving money. But to see the King was strange. The Jack was clearly the significator; a young, unreliable person. And the Three told him to be cautious in what he said. Knew that one, Ma. The King told him…that an older man was involved. And even though the suit wasn’t the same, he’d bet it was the boy’s father.
The hare’d set up at a machine called “Asteroids,” featuring a tough-looking armadillo riding one asteroid while blasting two others with a pair of guns. Sean watched from the bank of machines behind him, trying to catch some of his scent, but it was impossible in the smoky, crowded casino. So he just walked up behind the hare and stood beside him, smiling, until he turned.
He was young, Sean’s age, barely old enough to gamble. Fear flared immediately in his eyes. Heading it off, Sean said, “I have a message from your father.”
The fear gave way to a dull sadness that lowered the kid’s eyebrows. He remained tense, half off his chair. “My father’s dead.”
Roll with the punches. Sean kept his ears and eyes impassive. “I know.”
The kid’s blue jumpsuit hung off him in much the same way Sean’s uniform fit him. A “NASA” logo on the right side balanced a silver name tag that read “Gilliard” on the right. His nose was twitchy, even for a hare, his limbs long and awkward, and his voice high. The kid might be even younger than Sean, and the jumpsuit probably wasn’t his. Even now, he had the petulant frown and sarcastic tone of a teenager. “You can talk to dead people?”
“When they have something to say.” The fact that his father was dead actually gave Sean confidence. Finally, something he had real experience with.
“So, fine, what does my dad have to say?” Now the kid folded his arms. His eyes were still wide, but he was trying hard to puff himself up.
“He says you look good in his uniform.” Sean jerked his head toward the sports book. “Let’s have a chat.”
He walked away, keeping his tail confidently up. He knew as surely as he could feel the tingle of cards in his pocket that the kid was going to follow him.
His name was Roger, he told Sean at the quiet table. He sat all the way across, as far from the red wolf as he could manage, and still looked like he might flee at a moment’s notice. But when Sean asked gently about his father, he started talking. “My dad was an astronaut,” he said, his voice lower. “He was a real hero. But he passed on a couple months ago. Car accident. Left me an’ Ma and the girls without much.”
“So you came to Vegas?”
Roger nodded. “Dad brought us here most every summer.”
Sean thought he understood why an astronaut hadn’t left more money to his family. “Been doing pretty well on those slots.”
The kid’s ears folded down. “We got rent and food. If I get fifty thousand saved up, I reckon I can buy Ma a nice trailer.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m eighteen!” The lie came out so quickly that Sean was sure he’d told it before. No doubt had a fake ID to back up that story. The kid leaned over. “An’ you said Pa had a message for me.”
“He does.” Sean fingered the cards in his pocket, staring at the logo and the name tag. The father was more important than just the means to get the kid talking. He’d been an astronaut. He’d died in a car accident and his son was getting lucky at the Vegas slots. “Let me fetch it for you.”
He pulled out his cards, found the Jack of Spades, and set it in front of him. Roger watched him shuffle. “I did’n’ know casinos hired a card-reader,” he said, with charming innocence.
“I’m not on the clock,” Sean lied. “I just clean out the ashtrays.” Which would be true enough, if he couldn’t solve this.
Four of Diamonds. Three of Hearts. Five of Spades.
There was that Three again. But it was the Four that interested him most. That meant an inheritance. Things started to click into place for him. “My mother had something she called a ‘moon rock.’ She said it was ‘specially sensitive.”
The kid jumped. His paw flew to his chest and guilt stared out of his eyes. Sean went on. “Your dad says be careful with what he left ya. Says you’ll get what you want, but it’ll be hard and you’ll have to work for it. Says you’re doing great taking care of the family.” The family was what the kid wanted. That was the Five, a happy home, facing problems but with a happy ending.
“Y’ain’t like other card-readers.” The kid was clutching something through his jumpsuit. Probably had his dad’s moon rock made into a pendant. “What should I do?”
“Did your dad go to the moon?”
Roger shook his head slowly. “He was on the space station. He did some work on th’outside and this little rock, big’s a dewclaw, hit his glove. Did’n’ find it ‘til he came back in. He reckoned it was lucky ‘cause it hit right in a seam. If it’d hit a hair to th’left or right, might’a torn his suit.”
“So he gave it to you.”
The kid’s eyes got the kinda look Sean’d seen in the mirror after his Ma died. Sad. Distant. Haunted. “Gave it to me an’ got in his accident the next day.” He let it go, finally. “I was in a store an’ they had lott’ry tickets. Y’know, the scratch’n kind. I had it ‘round my neck and it started tinglin’ when I passed ‘em. So I reached for a couple ‘til I found the one that made it tingle. I bought it and it won twenty bucks.”
“He never brought it to Vegas?”
Roger shook his head. “I di’n’ know it was lucky ‘til then.”
Sean nodded. “Okay,” he said. “Look, I ain’t gonna arrest ya. Tell ya the truth, not even sure I can.”
The hare relaxed, until Sean leaned forward, baring his teeth like he used to do to the muskrats on the playground. The uniform lent him authority, and reminded him he was expected to use it. “But,” he continued as the hare cringed, “don’t come into the Sultanate. An’ take my advice. Go to a different casino every night. Go to different rooms. Don’t let people get to know ya. Someone’s always watching ya.”
“Is someone watching us now?” The hare’s voice was almost a whisper. Sean just nodded. He watched the kid swallow. “Okay. Th-thanks.”
“Your dad’s sorry he left you,” Sean said, suddenly.
“How you know?” Roger looked at the cards, which Sean hadn’t touched.
“Cause there’s a lot of dead people. Ain’t but a few care ‘nough to take the time an’ energy to come back with a message.”
Roger’s fingers went to his chest again, pressing the small pendant that had to be there. “Okay,” he said again.
Sean wanted to tell him it was going to be okay, wanted to tell him he had a great leg up on the world and not to abuse it or be stupid with it. But the kid’s dad was around to watch out for him. Sean gathered his cards and said, “We see you in here again, you’re gonna be arrested. Take care of yerself.”
He let the kid leave first, deliberately watching the sporting games on the screens so he didn’t see where the kid went, letting the sound flood back into his senses. When the kid was gone, Sean put the cards in his pocket and got up.
“So you got him ta leave,” Fargus said with a shrug. “I coulda done that.”
“He was using a charm that told him which slots were about to pay out,” Sean said.
“An’ how was it doin’ that?”
It’s a space rock that attracts luck. Sean shook his head. “I just know it did.”
Fargus snorted. But he didn’t relegate Sean to the janitorial staff; instead, he turned back to his monitors, where a vixen’s chest was exposed, gleaming white, as she leaned over a blackjack table. Well, Sean thought, settling back into his chair, at least he wasn’t being sent to clean out ashtrays. He rested his paw on the cards in his pocket, but they were quiet and content, and so he tried to be as well.