Monday, December 29, 2008

SHUFFLE, Chapter Eight

When I first came to work for Whitey, his finances had sprung a leak. Dollars drizzled out the back door by way of his employees, a bad thing for legal and illegal businesses.

Whitey was new to running a card room and so was I, but as an accountant, money is money. I looked over his operation and initiated some changes right away. Because of those modifications, it’d be hard to steal from him now.

One thing I encouraged Whitey to implement was that after every business night dealers had to log the house rake they’d taken in and their tips. The tips are totally theirs but if all the dealers aren’t on the same par with the rake, it sends a warning to Whitey of possible improprieties.

We decided too that whenever there’s an all-in bet, Whitey or I had to supervise the payoff. If a dealer takes too much out of a pot or makes too many mistakes, it leads to dissatisfied players. That results in poker folker carrying their money to other card rooms.

Whenever I don’t leave the game room until early, early morning ─ or late, late night, however you wanted to look at it ─ it’s my own fault. I’m doing my accounting thing closing out the books.

With so many poker players passing through the game room the night before, I didn’t get to Whitey and Angelina’s guest room until early in the morning. The physical activity of fire-fighting, combined with exhaustion from the animal outburst adrenaline rush, made sleeping easy. I didn’t wake up until mid afternoon.

My first thoughts were about Runt but Danta and my money were a close second. As I snuggled under the comforter, I got the giggles recalling the flying feathers, Mother’s wig mid-flight, and the area’s businessmen, politicians, professors, and college kids running across the room in fear of one little old snake. I guess none of them had a snake-collecting brother like Runt.

“T.R.,” Whitey yelled as he banged on his guest room door. “Wake up and get dressed. Shade wants us to come to the ropin’ arena.”

Last week I would have said, “So!” and turned over in bed for more sleep. But today I jumped up and started pulling on last night’s jeans. I wet my hair, ran my fingers through to spike it, and raced out the door. Last night’s makeup was still tolerable but yesterday’s deodorant could have used a little help.

Whitey and Angelina were waiting by the door, cowboy hats on, ready to go.

“Great gophers, we’re leaving now? No breakfast?” I said, looking at the chef. “I have to at least pee!”

“Get going,” said Whitey.

“Grab that box of Cheerios,” said Angelina. So much for gracious hosts and the fine cuisine I was expecting.

“What’s the dang rush?” I asked as the three of us stuffed ourselves and the Cheerios into Whitey’s little two-seater car.

“A little black horse is at the ropin’ competition,” Whitey said.

“S-o-o-o? It’s my brother that’s interested in horses. Not me,” I said, urging more explanation.

“A skinny young man with a totally shaved head’s riding it.”

“A-a-a-and?” This was like pulling cactus thorns out of your own butt ─ slow and painful. My grumpy, food-deprived state of mind thought Whitey’d never get to the point and if he did, I wondered if I’d be interested in it.

“This rider can’t rope worth a shit!”

“Runt? Runt’s at the roping?” My brother was more hat than cowboy. He loved the horses and the western wear but was lousy at the work. He definitely couldn’t rope worth a shit.

Whitey laughed. “I knew that last part would identify him!”

“Black horse, though? And bald?”

“All I know is what Shade told me. My guess is he couldn’t say Runt’s name because he was surrounded by people. I had to ask him if the guy was Runt. Shade said to get there fast. I take it Runt might have to leave soon. Shade said the horse was for sale and it might be one you’d want to buy. Cover story maybe?”

I shrugged my shoulders but we were so mushed up together in the little car, the gesture probably went unnoticed. “Gosh, I’ll be glad to see him,” I said. I wondered if I meant Runt, Shade, or the horse. “I hope Shade told him about Sloppy…and the fire. I don’t have the heart to tell him about either one.”

We were at the arena in no time, but then again, nothing’s very far away from any fixed point in this town. We parked the car at the back of the lot, the closest spot available to where we needed to go, and headed through the gate, searching for Shade or a bald-headed cowboy.

Shade found us before we spotted him. He came up behind us, twirled me around, and kissed me on the lips. I was so shocked I didn’t protest or have time to enjoy it. Nor did my chocha ignite in a Biblical manner. He hugged me hard and spoke over my shoulder, only loud enough for me, Whitey, and Angelina to hear.

“When you see Runt,” Shade whispered loudly enough for us and only us to hear, “don’t let on it’s him. In fact, hardly even give him a glance. Just look at the horse like you’re interested in buying it. You can probably talk in a low voice about anything you want as long you feel it’s safe and people think you’re examining the horse. You guys got it?”

He pulled away from me and gave me a slap on the butt. I wrinkled my nose. Maybe he was taking his role as a pretend boyfriend a little too seriously! Every female eye in the arena was watching, questioning when, exactly, had I entered Shade’s life again. I certainly wasn’t in the picture at the last rodeo.

“This is a sweetheart of a horse, honey,” Shade said loudly. He took my arm and we started walking. “I think you’ll really like him. He’s down by the far stalls. His owner thought he wanted to be a roper but he can’t rope worth a hoot so he’s sellin’ out.”

I saw horse and cowboy looking our way. That was Runt, all right, but even my mom would have had to do a double take to recognize him with that shaved head. I feasted my eyes on my bald brother until we got closer, then I switched my gaze to the horse. Of course it was Tonto, the little pinto, dyed black.

We shook hands all around and I got right to running my hand over the horse’s crest, withers, and back. “God, I’ve been so worried,” I told my brother.

“I’m totally sorry, Sis. I’ve really gone and done something stupid. I’m knee deep in trouble.”

I lifted up one of Tonto’s hooves and acted interested. “Oh, Runt. What have you done?” Shade, Whitey and Angelina were standing around like they were interested in the horse too. I never realized before how hard it is to listen closely to someone without looking at them.

“Shit, Sis. It involves computers, don’t ya know. Ever hear of biometrics?”

“Yeah, but can’t say I really know what it means.” I lifted up another hoof. A couple of cowboys stopped by to see what Shade was up to. If Shade’s interested in a horse, everybody’s interested! Conversation stopped until they got the hint and moved on.

“Well, to cut to the chase, biometrics reduces fingerprints or eyeballs to a numeric string by a mathematical algorithm and stores it for later analysis and access control.”


“Yeah. Anyway, these images are then distorted or altered in some way so they can’t be stolen by hackers.”

I knew I had an overwhelmed-by-technology look on my face. Word processing I can handle. Spread sheets and databases are a snap. I can even use the computer to take a photo of your dog and stick your head on it. But I can’t even pronounce algorithm.

“It’s a security thing, sis. Think fun house mirrors just for eyes and fingers. Ya can’t get into a building unless the funny mirror image is just like the one stored in the company’s computer.”

“Oh.” I nodded my head like I understood exactly what he was talking about. Otherwise, the explanation would go on and on, getting more technical instead of simpler. That’s how computer nerds like Runt explain things.

“Let me guess,” Shade said. “You developed a program that reconstitutes that distorted image, one that would let you inside sensitive areas of a business computer.”

Shade shut up again as more cowboys stopped by to listen. He’s popular at roping and rodeos.

“This horse is a good size for you, T.R.,” Shade said for the listeners’ benefit. “Just because you want a strawberry roan, I wouldn’t rule this pony out.”

I played along. “But I always wanted a strawberry roan horse, not a black one,” I said, looking at Tonto’s third hoof. Only one more to go, then what would I look at?

Runt kicked the dirt with the point of his cowboy boot. Shade smacked his forehead like I was being so stupid. I wanted to tell the cowboys to move on, nothing to see here, but, of course, that would have made them even more curious. It was better if we all just acted normal but quiet.

The cowboys laughed at me as Shade rolled his eyes for their benefit and they moved on.

“Well, for this company’s program anyway,” Runt continued the conversation as if we hadn’t been interrupted. “But I bet I could use similar coding for other programs. That’s one reason why this program is so valuable for….” He paused.

Shade continued for him, “…for, let’s say, the criminal element.”

“I ain’t proud of it!” Runt said defensively. “But it was such a challenge I just couldn’t resist.”

“Oh, Runt,” I said.

“Once I realized what I’d actually done, I tried to back out of the deal but the guy wasn’t havin’ any of it. He don’t want the money back. He wants me to continue running the program until he gets the information he needs! He wants to use it to take control of the company.”

“Which company?” I let Shade do the talking since it took everything I had to control my emotions. I felt like throttling Runt, at the very least. But I wanted to grab him and hug him too. I’d been so worried. What would Mom and Dad have to say about the prodigal son when they heard about this?

“Sirlo Consolidated,” Runt said in answer to Shade’s question. “The dude that hired me works for them…and against them, if you know what I mean.”

“Who’s the dude?” said Shade.

“Tom Sirlo Junior.”

“Sirlo Junior? He’s tryin’ to steal from his ol’ man?” Whitey asked.

“Yeah. That’s why he’s so desperate to get me to keep the program going. If he gets the information, he’s a winner all the way around. He steals from his ol’ man and eventually gains control of the company. He also has me over the feed trough because I developed the program. If he can’t get the information, he has to shut me up somehow and I’m afraid he’ll go the cheap route ─ a bullet to the head. I couldn’t get out of this mess if I wanted to. That’s why I had to disappear. I’m sorry, Sis. I’m so sorry.”

“You got paid?” Whitey asked.

“Half up front. Half later. Cash. No paper trail.”

“And the front half’s already spent,” Whitey stated.

“Yeah. I paid off The Barely Legal with it. But there’s more to this....”

We all sucked in air and individually held our breath. Shade and I were looking at Tonto’s teeth now. I was following Shade’s lead in what to look at but even I realized there wasn’t much more to see.

“I devised a computer worm that compromises the biometrics so that the system’s operator can’t just go in and change the way it transforms the images in order to foil my program. They have to start all over by getting new images and that’ll take awhile. And that’s only if and when they realize they’ve been had.”

“And the worm is already in place,” I said, feeling mournfully heavy in my soul. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Runt nod.

Nobody said a thing for a full thirty seconds. Finally Shade took charge again and broke the silence.

“Could Sirlo Senior already know that his security’s been compromised?” he asked.

“Doubtful. Too soon.”

“OK, Runt,” Shade said. “Here’s your charged up cell phone. Don’t use it unless you’re desperate. These people are high tech so they may be listening for you. And they’re mean. We already found that out.” He shook Runt’s hand again.

“I know. Thanks for the help with the fire at The Barely Legal. And be careful with my truck. It may be ugly but it’s mine.”

“How do you know about the fire and the truck?” I asked.

My bald brother grinned. “Burned hair ain’t your best look, Sis. I got web cams all over the outside of the trailer and barn.”

Great. My worse look ever and it was on the Internet. I hope nobody else was watching or I’d never get another date anywhere in the world!

“I could feel you wanting to be there,” I said. There was a man watching us, standing just out of earshot. At least I hoped he was out of earshot. It was pretty noisy where we were standing, what with the equipment being banged around, animals bellowing, and cowboys yakking all over the place.

“Who were the two guys who set the fire?” Shade asked.

“Tom and some guy named Eddy,”

“You got a way to keep your laptop battery charged?”


“We’ll email you in a day or two. Let me sniff around a little. Stay safe,” Shade said.

We all shook hands with Runt and turned to leave. “Thanks, you guys. I love ya, Sis,” Runt said quietly to our backs.

I looked at Shade and said, “I love you too, Runt.” And we walked away. I heard saddle leather creak as Runt mounted Tonto and walked the horse towards the arena exit.

I needed to get home and have a good cry. My face hurt from holding the tears in. Runt, you idiot nerd!

Maybe I’m the idiot. I forgot to tell him about Sloppy!

As he rode away, I heard the stranger ask Runt if Shade Saunders was going to buy that horse.

“Ah…Saunders wants the girl to buy it,” I heard Runt say.

I looked back at the bald cowboy sitting high on the horse and the man standing beside him with a hand on the animal’s flank.

“If Shade recommends that horse, I’d sure be interested in buying it myself…if she don’t want it.” At least that’s what I think I heard. We were getting out of earshot.

I saw Runt get back off Tonto. What was that all about?

“OK,” Shade said, laughing loudly. He quieted down immediately but grinned widely. “We’re all goin’ to smile now…and chat it up! We’re happy. It’s a cute horse. You’re interested!”

We all gave weak, fake laughs. “Better than that!” Shade said. And we tried harder. Somehow we carried it off all the way to the parking lot and the two-seater car.

Whitey got behind the wheel and turned the key in the ignition. The air conditioner came to life with the engine and started cooling off the car. He climbed back out. We all stood around, thinking our own thoughts.

“What do we know about Sirlo Senior?” Shade asked.

“Why?” I asked.

Shade shrugged his shoulders. “I’m desperate for information, I guess. We need to start unraveling this somewhere. I, for one, would like to know why his kid hates his dad so much.”

“Well, I know the old man’s a millionaire,” Whitey said. “Self made. His father, Tom Junior’s grandfather, was a garbage collector. His grandmother, a maid in a big house. Only one child, Sirlo Senior.”

That was way more information than I could think of. I knew Tom Junior from school. His folks were already rich and it didn’t occur to me to wonder how, when, where, or why. Rich is rich.

Shade looked at Whitey, probably wondering the same thing. “How do you know all this?” he asked.

Whitey smiled and shrugged. “My parents owned the big house.”

Oh. Family money would be so totally nice to have.

“A young Sirlo executive comes in to play poker now and then,” Whitey continued, leaning against the driver’s side door of his car. “I could issue him a special invitation and have a little chat with him.”

“The trouble with that,” Shade said, “is we don’t know who’s with Junior and who’s not. Surely he’s not trying to pull off something like this all by himself. I agree we need to talk to someone on the inside, though. I just don’t know who yet.”

“Maybe Casey could help in some way,” I said.

“No, we wouldn’t want her to risk her job for trouble that Runt’s made for himself,” Shade replied.

We all continued thinking quietly.

“My cousin cleans....” Angelina’s voice dribbled off to nothing. No one said anything.

Finally, out of politeness, I said, “Cleans what, Angelina?”

“The Sirlo offices.”

We turned our faces to her and our chins collectively dropped to our chests. “Well, I’ll be cow kicked,” Shade said.

“She like some poker players. Cleans up at night. Sleeps all day,” Angelina said.

Yep. Janitors and poker players do clean up at night. I can never tell if Angelina means to crack a joke or if it just pops out that way.

“But we’d be risking her job too,” I said.

“She be goin’ back to Mexico soon anyway,” Angelina said, waving her hand in a going away motion.

“Let’s think this through,” Shade said. “We’ll sleep on it. I have to get back to the arena and talk to some guys about makin’ saddles. Want to stay with me, Stripper, or go home with Whitey and Angelina?” Shade asked me.

“I might as well stay with you. It’ll save you a trip to the poker room.” I couldn’t believe I didn’t even twitch my nose at his nickname for me.

“Thanks, you guys,” I said. “See you Tuesday night, if not sooner.” I gave Angelina a hug, then Whitey. So did Shade. Well, at least he hugged Angelina. Whitey and Shade did one of those man things which involved bumping fists and knocking shoulders. Where do men get that stuff?

The parking lot was packed with trucks, making narrow going while dodging giant side mirrors that all cowboys believe they need when towing trailers ─ and for all I know they do. Never in my life have I pulled anything connected to my car by a little silver ball.

Our hands brushed once, then twice. On the third brush Shade covered my hand with his and we walked like that the rest of the way to the gates of the arena. I sure hoped Casey was in there to see this. She’d die!

To be continued Thursday.


  1. Now how do you dye a horse? The computer lingo is a nice contrast to the cowboy talk. I like the explanation of the circus mirrors. Thursday? I gotta wait until Thursady? Isn't that New Years Day, you're day to have a hangover? Do NOT forget to post Chapter... the next Chapter.

  2. Dyeing a horse? It goes on all the time although I don't know what they use. Sometimes it's just spot dyeing to change a horse's appearance. Maybe that's why they tattoo numbers inside a horse's lip. Can't change that!

    I'll schedule the next chapter, PJ, in case I'm all eggnogged up, drunk on some barroom floor. Stranger things have happened.

    The Texas Woman

  3. This engrossing tail grows more complex.
    If you're not writing what you know about, it
    surely seems so. poodles; white elephants;
    why not a painted pony...

    Are you going to tell your blogfiends about
    Old New England eggnog? I'd bet liquor store
    clerks, far and wide, are wondering why
    PD eggnog is flying off the shelves.

  4. Are you serious about dyeing a horse? That just sounds crazy to me. Maybe I should try dyeing my pup for Spring...a mellow yellow or perhaps a minty green?

    "Well, I'll be cow kicked." I can tell you're definitely the author. I think I've "heard" you say this before in your writing. Love that statement!

    Gonna be looking forward to a good read on New Year's day.

  5. Easter is coming up. Don't they have dyed bunnies and chicks where you guys live?

    For the record, coloring agents (dyes) are illegal when showing cattle. We do use hair conditioning, hair dryers, hair sheen, and adhesives (don't ask) on their coats. We also rat and fluff their tails!

    Showing pigs is easier!

    The Texas Woman


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