Exhausted after a long day of work, Mallory Devereaux entered J.T’s Bar on Thursday night intending to have a cold beer and a bit of relaxation. Then some misplaced Yankee challenged Father Thomas to a round of pool.
She had barely gotten the door closed behind her when her bayou neighbor, Scooter Duson, grabbed her arm and dragged her into the corner for consultation.
“I’ve got two hundred on Father Thomas to win this game,” he said. “Those Yankees been taunting him most of the evening.”
Mallory stared, certain Scooter had lost what was remaining of his rapidly disappearing brain cells. “Father Thomas has never played pool in his life. Why in the world would you put money on him?” She eyed the group of men in the far corner of the bar – mid-forties, beer bellies, cheap haircuts (on what hair was remaining), polyester shirts. They looked more like a bunch of out-of-work plumbers than the stockbroker image she had of the northern U.S. residents. The Yankees. “Those guys are probably hustlers. You know better.”
Scooter had the decency to look a bit embarrassed. “I know, but damn, I couldn’t just let them get one over on Father T. What kind of Catholic would I be if I didn’t come to his defense?”
“The kind with two hundred dollars in his wallet?”
Scooter nodded, her sarcasm lost. “Exactly. That’s why I need your help. I know you can turn it to the Father’s favor.”
She glanced one more time at the men in the corner and smiled. They were Yankees, after all, but did she really want to tackle something like that tonight? The energy she’d have to spend on this kind of project was probably better saved for something more important. And definitely better looking.
“What’s in it for me?” she asked, not about to turn on the juice for nothing, especially when Scooter had gotten all the way in this one by himself. “Flirting with ugly guys should be worth something,” she continued. “Besides, I’m probably going to have to touch him to ensure bad luck.” She shuddered.
Scooter cast a glance back at the Yankee and grimaced. “Half,” he said instantly. “A hundred for you, a hundred for me. Just fire your death ray or whatever it is.”
Mallory laughed and headed toward an empty spot at the bar, signaling to J.T., the bar owner. She shrugged off her denim work shirt, exposing the tight white tank top underneath. She gave the thin, clingy cotton a good yank down, just enough to expose about an inch of cleavage, then pulled off her steel-toed work boots. Reaching up with one hand, she grabbed the pair of FMPs that J.T. had retrieved from behind the counter, where he kept them in reserve for just this kind of occasion. She eased on the shiny black shoes with the five-inch titanium heels, careful not to scratch them on the worn-out wood of the counter, and tugged down her jeans until they sat just a little bit lower on her hips, exposing the tiny silver hoop that glittered in her belly button.
Her outfit complete, she turned to the bar where J.T. had already supplied two ice-cold beers for her job. “Thanks,” she said, and gave the older man a wink. She grabbed the drinks and sashayed across the bar, chest out and full hips swinging.
“Go get’em, killer,” J.T. shouted behind her.
She could already sense the anticipation in the room as all the locals waited for her to perform her magic. It was better than Friday night at the movies.
“What’s such a good-looking group of gentlemen doing in a place like this?” Mallory asked, and set the extra beer down in front of the ringleader and pool challenger. “I know you’re not from around here. Too much class for a joint like this.” She gave him her sexiest smile and leaned over to his ear, allowing tendrils of her long, glossy black hair to brush gently against his neck. “And far too good looking,” she whispered, then raised back up.
The guy’s eyes widened, and he grinned with almost comical elation. “You got that right, darlin’,” he said, and glanced around the bar. “This isn’t exactly the caliber of place I’m used to, but now that you’re here, I guess it will do.”
She squeezed into the chair next to him and tried not to roll her eyes. The guy was definitely a total loser, but a Yankee? Somehow he didn’t sound like one. “So where are you from?” she asked, and put one hand on his leg, causing him to twitch with anticipation.
“Up Ferriday way,” he replied. “We’re here for a store meeting at the port-a-john plant.” He puffed up his chest a bit and gave her a huge grin. “I’ve got my own store. Biggest one in the district.”
She nodded and took a huge gulp of her beer, trying not to groan. Not only were they not Yankees, they were port-a-john salesmen, which was almost worse. Ever since Walter Royal had figured out the need for portable potties and built his manufacturing plant, the town of Royal Flush had never been the same. Hell, it hadn’t even been called Royal Flush at the time, but one of the city council members decided to get cute over a bucket of beer at Lucy’s Catfish Kitchen and the rest was history.
A history that had turned Royal Flush into the butt of far too many Louisiana jokes.
“That’s wonderful,” she said, and squeezed the man’s leg, really laying it on thick. Father Thomas was going to need all the bad luck she could muster. “I’ve always been impressed by businessmen. You’re all so smart.” She took another gulp of her beer, emptying her glass, and wished she’d asked for a double.
The salesman’s eyes widened when she downed the beer, but he didn’t say a word as he pushed his still-full mug over in front of her. The idiot probably thought she was going to get drunk and he was going to get lucky. No way was that happening. Not even with a double.
“Go ahead,” he offered. “I’ve already had my limit. Empty calories, you know?”
Mallory stared at him for a moment. “Empty calories?”
The salesman nodded. “Yeah, no protein, too many carbs, then alcohol that turns to sugar. Not good for the diet.”
Mallory did another once-over of the man next to her, just in case she’d missed something relevant, or gone partially blind. Nope. The ruddy skin, sagging triceps, and protruding belly were still there. She wondered for a moment exactly what he saved those empty calories for but was afraid to ask.
“So how exactly does one get into the business of containing crap?” she asked, and gave him a sexy smile. “Most of the people I know are more satisfied spreading it around.”
The salesman guffawed and winked at his buddies. “A sassy woman. I like that.”
Good God. Mallory reached for the second mug and took a big drink, not impressed with the compliment. This guy would probably like anything just short of dead.
The salesman gave her a huge grin and dropped one hand down to her leg, running it over her knee. Oh goodie, he was moving in on every woman’s erogenous zone. For thousands of years no woman had been able to resist a good squeeze to the knee. She cast a single glance at his hand, and it was all she could do to hold her sexy smile in place. The thin white line around his third finger told the entire story.
The King of Crap had a queen sharing the throne.
No hitting the customers, she reminded herself, even though a good elbow to the crotch was the least the cheater deserved. But making the man temporarily lame wasn’t exactly the best way to get the pool game won. She took a peek at the clock on the wall and decided her work here was almost complete. If it didn’t work, Scooter would just be out two hundred. Hell, she couldn’t work miracles and spending another minute at the table with the King of Crap was going to require one.
Giving him her most winning smile, she placed her hand over his hand on her knee and wrapped her fingers in between his, gently stroking them up and down. With the other hand she downed the remainder of the beer and held the mug in the air, hoping that either Scooter or J.T. was paying enough attention to rescue her from the louse.
Her mission was accomplished. The toilet salesman was just leaning in for a kiss, God forbid, when Scooter interrupted them, pulling her by her shirt. “No time for this nonsense.” He pointed to the port-a-john guy. “You’ve got a game of pool to play. You can chase snatch on your own time.”
The salesman sobered instantly and put on his focused face. “Sorry, darlin’,” he said, and gave her a wink, “but we’ll have to finish this in a bit. I’ve got to win some money off these hicks.” He rubbed one finger down her bare arm with the sexual prowess of a fifteen-year-old, making her hope the Queen of Crap had a good-looking and very skilled pool boy back at home.
“By all means.” She motioned to the pool table. “Can’t have those hicks ruling the world, right?” She rose from her chair and made her way back over to the far corner of the bar, Scooter in tow.
“What kind of moron are you, exactly?” she asked Scooter as she took a seat at the bar. “Those guys aren’t Yankees. They’re port-a-john salesmen from north Louisiana.” She narrowed her eyes at Scooter. “You do know where the Mason-Dixon line is, right?”
The blank expression on Scooter’s face said it all.
She waved one hand in dismissal. “Never mind. Just get over there and get Father Thomas to the pool table. He looks like he’s going to need help walking.”
Scooter cast a glance at the priest, who was currently hanging half-on, half-off a bar stool, and groaned. “Oh hell. I hope he can stand well enough to play.”
Mallory motioned for J.T. and pointed at Father Thomas. “You’d better stop the beer and start the coffee. The pool game I can handle, but there’s no way I can do Mass on Sunday.”
J.T. glanced at Father Thomas and hurried to the back, most certainly to put on a pot of coffee strong enough to strip paint off a car bumper. Scooter doused the fallen priest with a glass of ice water, and he awoke with a start, sputtering water across the bar. “Is it raining?” he asked, gazing wildly around.
“You’re in the bar, Father Thomas,” Scooter explained. “You have to play pool now. Remember?”
Father Thomas thought for a moment, then his face cleared a bit. “Oh yeah, damn Yankees!” He slid off the bar stool and staggered toward the pool table. “And the Lord sayeth verily unto me that his will shall be done in J.T’s Bar as it is in heaven!”
“Good Lord.” Mallory shook her head and followed Father Thomas to the pool table, wondering if this situation was beyond even her capabilities.
The bar was crowded for a Thursday, and every single patron was within viewing distance of the pool table. But as she approached the crowd, they bumped and nudged each other until they created a path for her right up to a front-row seat. Taking a seat on a bar stool next to the dartboard, she nodded to the King of Crap, and he gave her a broad smile and a thumbs-up. With any luck, that thumb would fall right off and settle this nicely, she thought, barely managing a smile before turning her attention to Scooter, who was flipping a quarter to decide the break.
There were a couple of boos and more than a few curse words when the break went to the salesman, but the noise level dropped to nothing as soon as the crap king took his place at the front of the pool table and lined up for the break. You could have heard a pin drop as he drew back the cue, then released the shot with a bang.
The cue ball hit the racked balls like lightning, and they began to scatter across the table. One dropped, then another and for a moment, Mallory was afraid that even she had not been enough to swing this one in the right direction. But then the murmuring began, and she realized the cue ball had banked against one side and was now traveling the length of the pool table, headed directly for the corner pocket.
If it had enough steam to make it.
The ball seemed to hesitate a millisecond just in front of the pocket, then tumbled over the side with a clunk.
Father Thomas rose from his chair and raised both hands in the air. “Praise God and pass the peanuts.”
The crowd went wild and Mallory hopped off her stool and headed back to the bar. This one definitely deserved a beer. Maybe even two. And since she was still four beers short of her six-pack limit and the night was young, things were looking good all the way around.
“Not bad, huh?” she said as she took a seat in front of J.T. and bent down to replace the high heels with her work boots, happy she’d made it all the way across the bar twice without breaking one of the thin dagger-like spikes. But her glory was brief.
“How’d you like the reinforcements in the shoes?”
“What are you talking about?” she asked, and studied the shoe she’d just removed. “What reinforcements?”
The older gentleman winked at her. “Look in the heel. Scooter got some sheet metal screws and secured the heels. Nothing short of a hurricane is tearing those babies off.”
She held the shoe closer and looked inside. Sure enough, the flat head of a screw sat flush with the sole and directly above the titanium spike. Obviously Scooter had been “borrowing” from his construction site again. Smiling, she pulled off the other shoe, tugged on her work boots and turned back to the bar. You had to love having friends who really, really, knew you.
J.T. twisted the top off a cold one and slid it across the bar. “No charge,” he said. “I already pulled you a couple from stock. Worth it to see that shitter salesman go down.”
She smiled and took a swig of the beer. “Been digging into the stock already, huh? How did you know it was going to work? Father Thomas is pretty far gone.”
J.T. waved a hand in dismissal. “Please, I’ve known you since you were a kid. No offense, Mallory, but you’re like a twenty-first-century Typhoid Mary. Hell, I’m surprised you made it all the way across the bar with mugs.”
“Such flattery.” She laughed and tapped the side of the plastic beer bottles J.T. stocked just for her. “You make a woman all warm and fuzzy.”
He grinned a moment, then sobered. “What I got to say next probably won’t hit the warm-and-fuzzy meter.”
His tone and expression were so serious that she knew immediately something was wrong. Not much in the world got to J.T., so if her friend was stressing over something on a Thursday night, it was major. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s about Harry.”
Mallory sat upright so fast a single stream of beer sloshed out of the bottle and across the counter. “What about Harry? What’s going on?”
Harry Breaux, owner of Royal Demolition, was her employer and more importantly, her friend. He’d given her a break in the construction industry and had schooled her over the years until she held the top title of foreman in his company. And being the kind person he was, he’d overlooked the stock she came from and had invited her into his home when she was a teenager. He and his wife, Thelma, had treated her as family, something she’d never had before.
“What, J.T.?” she asked again, every muscle in her body tense.
“I heard the IRS has been sending him notices. Real regular-like and with bold print, if you know what I mean.”
She took a deep breath, trying to make sense of what J.T. said. Anyone with a brain knew better than to mess with the IRS, and Harry was far from stupid. “So maybe there was a mistake or something. He’ll work it out.” He had to work it out. Whatever it was. There wasn’t another option. “Maybe-”
“The mistake was not paying his taxes, and it’s all on Harry, not the IRS,” J.T. interrupted, a miserable look on his face. “He owes them a lot of money, Mal. Upward of fifty Gs.”
“Fifty thousand dollars! You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“‘Fraid not. Rumor has it they’re going to take the business and sell off the equipment unless he can cough up the money and real fast-like. Rumor also has it that the tax note may be for sale if there’s an interested buyer, and it so happens that there is … Walter Royal.”
She tossed back a huge swallow of beer, trying to calm her nerves and think. It couldn’t possibly be true, could it? Sure, Thelma’s cancer had cost a lot of money, even now that she was in remission. The treatments and checkups and tests had seemed a part of her everyday life. But could Harry really have shorted the IRS fifty thousand dollars?
And Walter Royal? Heaven help them all. The man was already the Donald Trump of Royal Flush, but at the rate he was buying up property and businesses, the town would soon cease to exist and become a principality instead. Buying the IRS out of Harry’s tax debt would be a quick, cheap way to pick up a business he’d had his eye on for years.
“This whole situation sucks,” J.T. continued. “You know as well as I do that if Royal gets his hands on Harry’s business, he’ll fire everyone local and replace them with his useless relatives just like he has all the other businesses in this town he’s managed to buy.”
“Where’d you get this information anyway?” she asked.
He pointed across the bar to Father Thomas just as another round of cheers went up from the locals. Father Thomas’s voice boomed above the crowd, “And God saw that Adam was lonely and sent him beer!”
Mallory shot a glance across the bar and shook her head. “Your source is Father Thomas? Please tell me he wasn’t given this information in confidence. Besides, I thought Harry stopped going to confession after the last time Father Thomas blabbed.” And if this was any indication of the church’s position on confidential information, she’d just made her last confession too, at least locally.
“Wasn’t Harry that confessed.”
Mallory studied the man for a minute then sighed. “Stanley’s been reading mail again, hasn’t he?”
J.T. shrugged. “You know how Stanley is. Leopard ain’t gonna change its spots.”
“Good God, he’s been a postman for over thirty years. Doesn’t he have any appreciation for federal law?” Not to mention the privacy issue. She made a mental note to change the mailing address on a recently placed order for a “personal item” she’d bought from a “specialty” store in New Orleans.
“I swear, J.T,” she continued, “I sometimes wonder why our government spends so much money on war. If we really wanted to cripple the intelligence of other countries, we’d just send the two of them over.”
She was just trying to recall anything damaging or otherwise embarrassing that she might have mentioned to Father Thomas the week before when Scooter clapped her on the back and dropped a hundred in front of her.
“No problem collecting?” she asked. “I figured he’d argue for a rematch.”
Scooter grinned. “Idiot claimed his hand went to sleep, then cut out of here with the rest of those Yankees. I asked if he wanted your number, but he didn’t even look at me.” He poked Mallory in the ribs with his elbow. “Guess that means your date is off.” Laughing hysterically at himself, he motioned to J.T. for a beer.
J.T. grabbed a bottle, popped the cap and slid it across the bar to Scooter, then leaned on the bar in front of Mallory. “So if the tax note goes on sale, are you going to buy?”
She downed the remainder of her beer and picked up the hundred-dollar bill Scooter had dropped in front of her. “Fifty thousand dollars? Father Thomas would have to challenge the rest of Louisiana to a pool match for that to happen. Even with all my savings, I’m about ten grand short and no assets for a quick sale, none I can do without, anyway.”
J.T. nodded. “I hear ya. Ten Gs is a wad of cash, especially to come up with in such a short time frame.”
Scooter turned around on his bar stool and gave her a curious look. “You short on cash, Mal? You can have my other hundred. I was just going to buy new lures with it anyway.
Mallory smiled at Scooter, his offer confirming her opinion that her neighbor was silly as a goose but had a heart the size of the Gulf of Mexico. “I appreciate it, Scooter, really I do, but I need a lot more than a hundred.”
Scooter scratched his head for a moment, his eyebrows scrunched together in obvious concentration. “There is probably one way you can make a lot of money fast – next week, as a matter of fact.”
Mallory stared at Scooter. “I’m not doing anything illegal,” she said, bringing up the only thing she could imagine Scooter would come up with. “Besides, ten grand in two weeks is a lot, even for a New Orleans prostitute. And I don’t have the enthusiasm for the job anyway.”
J.T. laughed. “She got you there.”
Scooter stared at her, a dumbstruck expression on his normally jovial face. “Good God Almighty, Mallory, I never said you should do anything of the sort. I wouldn’t even think it.”
She narrowed her eyes at Scooter, still waiting for his suggestion. “So if it’s not something illegal then why don’t you just come out with it?”
Scooter glanced both directions, apparently making sure they couldn’t be overheard, then leaned over closer to Mallory. “Your uncle is hosting a high-stakes poker tournament. I bet he’d cough up a pretty penny for you to cool for him.”
J.T., who had leaned in to hear what Scooter said, jerked back from the bar, his jaw set in a hard line. “Hell no, Mallory. You’re not working that tournament for your uncle. Even if I have to padlock you in the storage room to keep you from it.”
Mallory stared at J.T. in surprise, trying to process what Scooter said and the bar owner’s unexpected reaction. “What in the world has gotten into you, J.T.? I know Reginald flies on the wrong side of the law sometimes, but I’ve cooled for him before and you haven’t had a problem with it.”
“Damn it.” J.T. grabbed a rag from the bar and shook it at Scooter. “You want to ask your genius neighbor how he knows about this tournament? Because he’s been doing construction at your uncle’s floating boat of fun. And do you know what he’s been installing, specifically for this tournament?”
“Forget I said anything,” Scooter mumbled. He slid off his bar stool and slunk across the bar, away from J.T.’s wrath.
J.T. tossed the rag on the bar and ran one hand across his balding head. “That idiot you live next to has been installing metal detectors at the casino, that’s what. This unorthodox tournament of your uncle’s is a chance to beat the house. Dealers have been flocking from all over the state to try out for a spot.”
“Why would dealers care?”
“Because they’re playing on the casino’s behalf. They put up ten grand for the spot and get to keep half their winnings, less what Reginald kicks in. Reginald is matching the ten with another forty. He’s got several hundred thousand at stake.”
Mallory frowned. “Okay, so putting up his money isn’t the smartest thing Reginald’s ever done, but how do metal detectors fit into it?”
J.T. leaned across the bar, his voice low. “The tournament is invitation only. There’s a couple of locals invited for good measure, I suppose, but the rest …”
“The rest what?” Mallory prodded.
“Oh hell,” J.T. said finally. “Your uncle has assembled a group of heavy hitters-Mafia, drug dealers, politicians, crooked law enforcement-and not a single one of them worth pulling out of the bayou if they were drowning. He’s putting together a floating boat of criminals-hardcore, no-conscience-having, bad guys.”
Mallory sat back in her chair and stared at J.T., stunned. “You’re sure about that?”
“Not a doubt in my mind. The teller down at the bank said Reginald’s been in there every day for the past week, depositing cash in fifty-thousand-dollar increments. He listed the name of each player on their deposit, so the teller was real clear on that. This tournament is going to happen all right – they’ve already bought in.”
“What in the world is Reginald thinking?”
J.T. shook his head. “I don’t know, and I don’t think I want to. Word on the street is that he’s into a New Orleans loan shark for a wad of cash. If this is his best idea for getting repayment, I’m afraid Reginald has finally lost his mind.”
“Then I guess asking him to loan me the money is probably out of the question, and that was actually my original plan. But if he’s really in that much of a bind over money, I’d be a sure bet for him to get a hunk of it back. I bet he’d pay a pretty penny for that guarantee.”
J.T. sighed, knowing he was losing the battle. “But at what cost? Cooling for a bunch of bored husbands or businessmen is one thing, but this is an entirely different kettle of fish. Your uncle has been pretty good to you over the years, but that doesn’t change what kind of man he is. Do you really want to get in the middle of one of Reginald’s schemes – especially if he’s as desperate as it appears?”
Mallory stared out the window of the bar, the billboard for Royal Port-A-Johns seeming to taunt her from its roadside perch. “I don’t have a choice, J.T. It’s the only way.”