Authors: Carmen Faye
Just after the asshole grabbed my braid and yanked me back, Antonio got a call. He tucked the gun in the back of his pants and held the phone to his ear. His face turned from mild irritation to something that looked like pure hatred. He stormed toward the door and looked back at the guy who still flanked me.
“Put her somewhere for now, John. We have company.”
The henchman’s name was John? Really? I would have thought it would rather be something like Butch or Ace or something.
He looked at me and grinned in a way that made me glad I wasn’t wearing one of my low neckline dresses. I was scared, but I wasn’t going to show it. I held my head up high and challenged him with my stare. If he wanted to take advantage of me, he could bring it on. I was going to fight tooth and nail.
He didn’t try anything with me. Turned out that a henchman named John could be a gentleman if he really wanted to. He took me by the arm but didn’t hurt me and guided me into a room that was adjacent to the office through a door I hadn’t noticed before.
The room was small and suffocating. Four concrete walls, a concrete floor, and a small rectangular window at the top with metal mesh in front of it were all I got. John just started to close the door when he stopped himself and widened it again.
“Phone,” he said. Dammit.
“I don’t have one,” I said.
“Don’t mess with me, sweetheart,” he said and curled his fingers to emphasize his point. “Give it to me. I’ll frisk you if you don’t.”
I rolled my eyes but complied and pulled it out of my jacket pocket. I wasn’t going to let him touch me. I was just going to have to give it up then anyway, and I didn’t want him to cop a feel.
“Liar,” he said with a smug smile that irritated me as much as his calling me sweetheart. This time he closed the door all the way behind him, and I heard a lock slide in place. I waited a couple of seconds so that I knew he was gone, and then I tried the door.
It really was locked.
I walked to the window and tried it too, but I’d pretty much already guessed that it wasn’t going to work either. How many people had been locked in this little room?
I wrapped my arms around myself and slid down the wall until I was sitting on the floor. The concrete was cold through my jeans, and I shivered, glad I had my jacket at least. The feeling of not being able to breathe, of freaking out in a small space, was right there. I had to focus to keep it at bay. The room was quite dark, too. The only light came through the little window from something I guessed to be a lamppost.
I didn’t know how long I’d been left in that little room. An hour? Maybe two? It could have been even longer. However long it was, it felt like forever.
Finally, John came back and unlocked it for me.
“Boss is ready for you,” he said in a way that had way too much double meaning to make me feel comfortable, but there wasn’t any arguing with Muscle Man. He stood to the side to let me walk first like he had real manners, but even if he treated me like the queen of Sheba I was still a prisoner.
I stepped back into Antonio’s office. There was a chair now where I’d been standing before, and Antonio was still missing.
“He’ll be here in a minute,” John said, as if he knew what I was thinking. As if on cue, the door opened and Antonio walked through, scowling.
“They thought they saw him in the casino, but it turned out to be a false alarm,” Antonio said. John nodded, so I assumed the statement had been aimed at him.
“Did your boyfriend run away?” Antonio asked, and this time I was sure it was aimed at me.
“I don’t have a boyfriend,” I said. “I don’t do relationships.”
Antonio nodded. “Gambling more your thing?”
“It’s a lot more reliable than men. And cheating isn’t a heartbreak this way.”
Antonio chuckled at my joke, as if he really thought it was funny, and for a moment, his face lit up and he looked like he could be a person if he tried. That warm smile died away again, though, and he ended up just looking like the heartless Mexican I knew him to be.
“So where is he?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t heard from him. When that happens in my life I tend to assume that they’ve left.”
Antonio looked at me, and he had a perfect poker face on. I had no idea what he was thinking.
“You’re cheeky,” he said after a moment. He wasn’t annoyed or amused or surprised. He was an emotionless slate and that scared me. Anyone who had the ability to do that, had the ability to kill without thinking about it twice.
And I could think of better things to do than staring down the business end of a gun.
Antonio gestured to the chair. I wanted to refuse, but I had a feeling I was going to be in here for a while. I had no intention of being carried out in a body bag, so I sat down. I wasn’t going to keep standing. And I was going to tell them as much as I knew to buy myself some time.
I didn’t know how it was going to end—at which point, something was going to give, but I was going to play this like the most expensive gamble I’d ever done in my life.
“He approached me, a couple of weeks ago. He sought me out right outside your casino. I think he had an agenda.”
That last sentence had Antonio’s attention. I could see it in his black eyes, the way he widened them just a little, just enough to let me know that I was saying the right things.
“What makes you think he wanted to do his job here?” Antonio asked.
I shrugged. “Isn’t this place famous for how great it is?” I asked. “I mean, it ups some of the places in Vegas. And Rip is the kind of person who takes advantage of such things. I don’t blame him.”
Apparently, compliments went a long way, too. Antonio didn’t smile, exactly, but he had that smug look on his face, the same one John had worn earlier. Maybe it was a thug thing. Or maybe they’d worked together for so long they were starting to rub off on each other.
“What did he want from you?”
I was feeling more and more comfortable. Antonio seemed to be in a chatty mood, and John had removed himself to a corner where he leaned against a set of shelves that by some miracle held his weight. He looked like he could spend time there for hours. And as long as this was keeping me alive, I could keep going, too.
I shrugged and leaned back against the chair. “A partnership. He wanted to work together, make more money, and then split the winnings.”
I didn’t tell him about the fact that I’d claimed a debt from him for distracting me to the point of losing that first night. It was why we’d met, after all. I’d made it quite clear what I thought of him and his antics.
“I agreed to work with him because it seemed good to have someone else do the work for a change and I still got some cash from the deal. I’m sure you know how that feels.”
Antonio looked surprised for a second before he wiped it off his face again and gave me that blank stare. “What made you trust him?”
The fact that I liked him, which was another fact that I wasn’t willing to share.
“I don’t trust anyone,” I said. “He left with the money, didn’t he? Goes to show that you can’t even enter into a business deal with a man like him.”
Antonio walked around his desk and sat down as if he was on a throne. He put his elbows on the armrests and interlinked his fingers in front of his chest. I assumed he’d crossed his legs under the table, but I couldn’t see.
“You had no idea that he was going to leave?”
“With my money? Of course not. He owes me my half.”
Antonio nodded and swiveled from side to side, as if he was getting bored.
“We have a bit of a problem, you see. He took a lot of money from me, and I want it back.”
I shrugged. What was it that he wanted me to do about it? Rip had fled, and not even I could have made him stay. He just wasn’t that type of person, and I was an idiot to assume that he could be any different at all.
“How do you suggest I get the money that he stole from me?”
Right. The drugs. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly so that it didn’t sound like I was sighing. I had a poker face of my own.
“I don’t know. Maybe you can win it back.”
Antonio just looked at me, and I couldn’t read what he was thinking. That scared me. I had been taking cues from his facial expressions, however subtle. I played poker for a living. I knew how to read people. I didn’t know how to read him, and it was scaring me.
Antonio stopped swiveling and got up out of his chair. He walked around the desk toward me and crouched down so that he sat on his heels in front of me. He put both hands on my knees. I hated the fact the he was touching me, but I didn’t show it. Point for me.
“How do you suggest I win it back if my own winnings are futile when I own the place?”
That was a good point. I didn’t answer. Antonio slid his gaze down my body, resting on my breasts before moving further down. I wasn’t sure what he was looking at, but it felt like I might as well be naked. He slid his hands higher up my thighs. He had me trapped in the chair, and I knew that he would push for more if I stopped him. The only reason he wasn’t forcing anything now was because I wasn’t fighting.
In a way, men in my world were like animals. If you showed fear or started running, their predator’s instinct kicked in and overrode all sensibility, and they went in for the chase.
They won, too, because they were bigger and stronger. I wasn’t willing to play that game and lose. I was a sore loser, and I wasn’t prey. Not by a long shot.
“You know,” Antonio said, leaving one hand high up on my thigh and rubbing the other up and down in a move I assumed was supposed to be hypnotic. “There are other ways to repay me. And you don’t have to worry about Rip and what he owes you. If you stay with me on this, I can send some men out to track down where he’s been before. I’m sure a man like him has a trail of hookers behind him that are willing to speak if the price is right.”
I knew that he was trying to bait me. Most of it wasn’t working. I wasn’t going to stick with him—which would mean dating him and he was a slime—and I wasn’t falling for the promise of money. I didn’t want to care about the hookers he mentioned—he was stereotyping anyway—but that still got to me. It shouldn’t have, but it did. I wasn’t supposed to feel hurt and jealous, but I did, and the thought of Rip with some other woman for the sex made me feel used and angry and heartbroken all at the same time.
“Well, why don’t you play me,” I said. My voice was hoarse and a lot less confident than it had been before, but I was starting to run out of the cool façade I’d been putting up and his hands on my thighs were really starting to get to me.
Antonio stopped his stroking—thank God—and narrowed his eyes at me. I could think again.
“What are you talking about?”
“Why don’t we play a round or two? We can make the stakes nice and high, something that’s a challenge to us both.”
Antonio looked at John for a while, and it looked like they were conversing without words. Finally, he nodded.
“Fine,” he said. “But I set the terms.”
“This is how it’s going to work,” Antonio said. We were in a private room in the VIP section. “We’re playing Texas Hold’em poker so that your pretty face can’t count cards.”
I fought the urge to roll my eyes. I wasn’t stupid; I knew that he wasn’t going to make it blackjack after I’d been caught for cheating at just that. Besides, I hated it when he called me a pretty face. Compliments from him just seemed like backhanded insults anyway.
“You’re going to play with the amount of chips that equal up to everything you own, including your house, your furniture, your car, your money, everything.”
I swallowed. This sounded like a high-stakes game. I knew that Antonio liked to go big, but this was crazy. I was at a disadvantage here, and there was nothing I could say about the way things were going. I was the one who had called this game, after all. It had seemed better than being pushed to the point where Antonio slept with me, because I didn’t doubt he would take it that far.
Thinking about it now, I would give up everything I owned before sleeping with him anyway. So it shouldn’t have looked that bad to me.
It still did, of course, because saying that you would give up everything before sleeping with someone was completely different from actually doing it.
There were four of us in the room. Antonio sat opposite me at the green felt table. John stood behind him, flanking him like I was going to be able to do something to take him out. There was also a dealer sitting to my left, an old man with thinning gray hair.
Whenever Antonio spoke to the dealer—whose name turned out to be Sam—the man turned his head to the side, as if he was deaf in one ear. I was surprised he wasn’t deaf in both considering how old he looked.
He had long wrinkly fingers, but they shuffled through the cards as if he’d been doing it his whole life, and watching him, I knew why Antonio had chosen him. Antonio was an asshole, but he wasn’t stupid. And everyone in this room was on his side except me.
“If I win, what do you lose?” I asked.
Antonio looked at me with an irritated face, as if I was asking something that was completely inconsequential.
“You get everything I own when you win, but what if I win?” I asked again so that he understood what I was asking. I didn’t doubt whether he really understood, but I wanted an answer.
“What do you want?” he finally asked. I knew that he wasn’t putting anything real at stake, so this was my time to think on my feet.
“I want you to let me go.”
Antonio looked over his shoulder at John, as if he was asking him something. John stood with his hands folded in front of him in the classic bodyguard stance, and his face showed nothing. He also didn’t give any kind of answer, not even a nod. But Antonio nodded as if he’d gotten an answer. Maybe the two were on the same wavelength or something.
“Okay,” he said. “If you win, you’re free to go. But if I win then I don’t just get everything you own, I get you, too.”
“That’s not fair,” I cried out. “You already set out the stakes for this game.”
Antonio shrugged. “And you’re the one who is captive. It’s not as if I can’t change the rules. I want you, and if you can demand your freedom when you win, then I can demand to have you as my own for however long I’d like in return.”
Blood drained from my face. The stakes had just been upped a hell of a lot, and I didn’t know if I had what it took. For however long he wanted? I shuddered just trying to imagine what it would be like to have to please a man like Antonio Jerrill for as long as he demanded it. Sex wasn’t ever supposed on the table.
I hated that it was. And there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. There was no way out of this—except winning. Everyone in my life that could save me right now was gone.
I nodded slowly. What else could I do? Antonio smiled in a way that made me sick to my stomach, and he looked at me as if he was already picturing me without my clothes. I took a deep breath and looked at the dealer.
He smiled at me, and his rubbery face shifted until his yellowed teeth showed. Great. I was trapped in a room with three men, none of whom had my best interest at heart, and I had the feeling that I was going to lose this.
But it wasn’t over yet.
My eyes were gritty from lack of sleep. I wondered what the time was. I was guessing around four in the morning, given how long they’d had me for, but it was impossible to be sure.
The first hand was dealt. We didn’t use big blind and small blind because there were only two of us, and it wasn’t as if anything Antonio bet was for real, anyway. His chips were just a guarantee that I was going to put in mine.
I had a three and a seven. Bad cards in most circumstances unless I was lucky. The first card was flipped and it was a queen. Another round, another bet. I couldn’t fold yet. Second card flipped was a jack. There was no way I was going to be able to win this.
I folded. Antonio kept his poker face as he scraped the chips toward him. I imagined each of them as something I owned. My microwave, my television, the rug I’d bought a year ago as a Christmas present to myself.
I took a deep breath and looked at the dealer again. He shuffled the cards like a pro, fingers moving so fast it was impossible to tell what he was doing. He could be shifting them in a particular way for all I knew.
The second hand was dealt, and Antonio bet first, pushing in more chips than I was comfortable with. I did the same and then checked my hand. A jack and a king—a bit better this time. I had a bit of hope. I was a good poker player, after all, and I could read a situation. That was in my favor, at least, even though I felt like I was in the minority.
The first card was flipped. A jack. I sat with a double already. Perfect. I raised my bet, Antonio called, and the second card was flipped. A nine. Not exactly what I needed, but it wasn’t a reason to pull out.
The last three cards happened in much the same way, with something that would work but nothing that I could relax about. So far, I just had the double and maybe the king would count in my favor as a kicker, but I wasn’t sure.
I put my cards down and hoped Antonio had worse. I could really do with a win right about now.
Antonio showed his cards. He had triple queens with two on the deck and one in his hand with an Ace kicker. Fuck.
He scraped more of my chips toward him. That was about equivalent to my car, I thought.
Three more rounds where I lost every time and I was about ready to scream. It kept going like that all the time. Cards that I couldn’t use, or cards that were good but just not enough to pull a win for me. It felt like the universe was against me.
Antonio got up. “I think I need to stretch my legs for a bit,” he said. “I’ll be back. Sam, you take a break, too.”
The old man nodded and got up. He walked bending forward as if he was carrying a heavy load on his back, and his steps were half the size of mine. John stayed behind after the other two left the room, and I was alone with him again.
“You must get tired of being the one to always stay behind, huh?” I asked.
He shrugged. “It’s my job.”
“You get paid well for doing someone else’s dirty work?”
He nodded. He didn’t respond to my comment about his job being dirty work. Maybe he just didn’t care what I said about it. Maybe he didn’t see it as dirty work. Either way my bait didn’t work, and he was as calm and steady as ever. I didn’t know what I’d planned by riling him up; it wasn’t as if running would do me any good. Johnny-boy could reach me in one big step, and I doubted that the table would be an obstacle despite the fact that it was between us.
“How long have you been working for Antonio?” I asked.
“A couple of years.”
Non-committal answers. Great. I couldn’t even make normal conversation.
“You don’t get to leave, not even to pee?”
“I don’t need to pee,” he said. It sounded funny coming from a grown man, but his seriousness cancelled out any joking atmosphere. I wasn’t going to get anywhere with this man, not even to a normal conversation.
I looked at the dwindling stack of chips in front of me. It was pitiful seeing all my belongings reduced to a tiny pile of wooden rounds like that. It made me feel like what I had to lose wasn’t that much anyway. It was a lot to me, obviously, and I really didn’t want to lose any of it, but it was pretty pathetic, looking at it like that.
My whole life was like that. I had made a big deal out of it, and I protected what I’d built and what I’d gained fiercely, but at the end of it, it was pathetic. I was a gambler. An addict. And my life was, let’s face it, the result of a condition that I didn’t wish on anyone. Cass was right telling me that I needed help. But how could I accept help from her?
She’d also been through the same as me. She’d also dealt with Mom. And when Mom had died, she’d looked after me, which meant that technically she’d had it worse. After everything, she was fine, with a stable, honest life, morals and values, a man that loved her to death and pledged his loyalty to her daily, and a child that adored her.
How had it happened that I’d never gotten around to that? Maybe being a failure was genetic and I’d pulled the short straw from the gene pool.
Whatever. Wallowing in self-pity just made my situation now seem that much worse, and I couldn’t afford to sink into that black hole while I was caught in a room with a man who wanted everything from me, including my womanhood.
I took a deep breath and pushed all the anger and resentment and pity that I felt to the back of my mind. That was for later, if I survived all of this. If I walked out of here alive, I would think about the bad things again. Until then, I was going to keep my chin up and think about how I was going to get out.
If I lost all of this, Antonio was going to claim me as his winnings, and that wasn’t going to work for me. I couldn’t fight John, but I doubted the bodyguard was going to flank Antonio while he did the dirty, so I would be alone with him then.
Antonio wasn’t poorly built. His suit sat on him as if he had the frame to wear it with pride, but he was no John. If I went along with it long enough, I could get him to a point where his guard was down, and then I could hurt him. Or kill him.
The intensity of my thoughts scared me. How far had I spiraled? How had it gone from gambling and cheating at it to sex and murder? But I didn’t want Antonio to touch me, and it wouldn’t be consensual…none of it. That meant that if I did get caught, at least I would have a foot to stand on with any judge.
The door opened, derailing my train of thought, and Antonio came in followed by his creepy dealer.
“Are you ready for round two?” Antonio asked me. He smiled at me again in a way that made me feel dirty before he sat down.
“Bring it on,” I said, sounding a lot more confident than I felt.