Gutshot Straight

Chapter 1

Charles Samuel Bouchon—“Shake” for short, ever since his first fall for grand theft auto when he was nineteen—took another look at his hole cards.

He tended to fold with a bullet showing and his opponent betting big, but Shake was sitting on a pair of hearts, and he was pretty sure the beast across the table from him wouldn’t recognize a flush if it jumped into his lap and kissed him on the mouth.

The beast was Vader Wallace, a mean young black con from Block C who was one long rope of muscle, braided around and around and around until it was a wonder he could walk. He was doing a dozen years behind a first-degree-manslaughter charge, aggravated. Extremely aggravated, according to the rumors.

Shake, on the other hand, was just a rangy white guy up on another GTA, forty-two years old and feeling every minute of it. But he’d survived the last fifteen months here at Mule Creek and wasn’t going to roll over just because some pumped-up, puffed-up con glared at him.

He called Vader’s bet. “I’ll pay to see that last card,” he said, and gave Vader a friendly smile.

Missouri Bob, the dealer, took his time with the river. Missouri Bob’s hand was tooled with crude blue tattoos—roses and rose stems and thorns.

Finally, dramatically, he showed them the last card.

Queen of hearts.

“Tramp of hearts,” Missouri Bob said. “Lovely but dangerous. Beware.”

Shake waited till he was sure Vader was watching him and then he frowned.

Vader saw the frown and smirked. Shake felt a little sad, how easy this was.

“Bet it all,” Vader said. He pushed his entire bankroll of Top Ramen noodles into the center of the table.

“The bad-tempered brother wrongly convicted of manslaughter bets it all,” Missouri Bob said.

“I heard what the bad-tempered brother said,” Shake said.

“Small-change white bread stalls for time.”

“I don’t know how we’d manage without your commentary, Bob.” Shake gave the queen of hearts another frown, just to see Vader smirk again. He noted that Vader’s head was too small in relation to all the muscle it was perched atop. His mouth, by contrast, was too large in relation to the head.

The fourth person at the table, a tweaked-out kid with one eye focused, the other swimming, tried to get a peek at Shake’s cards.

“That right, Shake?” he asked. “You’re small change?”

“Walks outta here a free man in seventy-two hours,” Missouri Bob said.

“Sixty-eight,” Shake said. “Not that I’m counting.”

“Call or fold, motherfucker,” Vader said.

Shake pushed his call in. “Show me yours, I’ll show you mine.”

“Three aces.”

Vader started to rake in the pot. Shake dropped his flush.

Missouri Bob clapped a hand to his bald head and woo-heed. Vader stared at the cards with affront and confusion, like a dog that’d just banged its head against a glass door it didn’t know was there.

“Say what?”

“Five hearts,” Shake explained, tapping them one by one. “Young and in love.”

Vader turned to Missouri Bob. His expression was both plaintive and murderous. “Don’t beat three aces, do they?”

Missouri Bob shook his head sympathetically. “Like a rented mule.”

Vader slammed his forearms against the table. The impact bounced the queen of hearts to the concrete floor. “Motherfucker!”

He stood up. His expression was just murderous now. Not plaintive. The tweaked-out kid’s good eye went wide, and Missouri Bob began edging discreetly away.

“Motherfucker cheated,” Vader said.

Shake gathered up his winnings. It wasn’t smart to start a beef with sixty-eight hours left on your ticket. He hadn’t cheated, though, and resented the accusation. Plus, he had a hunch, glancing up at Vader, that this beef had started without him; it was just a question, now, of how it ended.

There was a CO across the room, watching some cholos play checkers, but Shake knew that the guards weren’t paid enough to intervene in Vader’s business, not until it had been safely resolved.

“Said the motherfucker cheated!”

“No, Vader,” Shake said, “you just weren’t paying attention. Odds tell you I’m playing hearts in the hole.”

“Fuck the odds, motherfucker.”

Shake shrugged and bent to pick the queen of hearts off the floor. From beneath the table, he saw Vader shift his weight to his back leg, preparing to strike.

“You can run, motherfucker, but—”

Shake kicked hard and drove his heel into Vader’s kneecap. Vader’s back leg snapped with a soft, damp crack, and he dropped like he’d been chopped in half.

“Woo-hee!” Missouri Bob said, and then he beelined for the door as fast as his legs would carry him. Shake followed close behind, trying to think of a good parting shot, while Vader thrashed around