Thursday, April 19, 2018

Ted Cohen's Promotions!


All Three
Kindle Editions 
Starts this Sunday

April 22 through 29
99 cents each

0.99 each in the UK

Book 1:

Book 2:

Book 3:

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Available on iOS, Android, Mac & PC

I hope you enjoy these THREE new flash fiction books!  Remember: each book contains 73 stories and each story is prompted by an intriguing photograph!

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Collision The Battle for Darracia Michael Phillip Cash - Chapter 1 Excerpt

The Battle for Darracia

Michael Phillip Cash 
Book 2
Chapter 1 Excerpt
Available on Bargain Booksy April 6, 2018:

Amazon - Link:

Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, 24 Symbols, Angus & Robertson - Link:

Chapter 1 

     The shores of Fon Reni were fine black sand dotted with purple sea glass that littered the barren beach. Stars lettered the velvet sky, here and there a shooting cosmic spray spread across the inky darkness, illuminating the still night. It was quiet here, the distant planet devoid of life, save the lonely inhabitants who lived on the beach, footprints washed away by the icy seas. 
     He had constructed a crude hut for his guest using the fronds on the leafy trees that populated the jungles. Zayden slept under the night stars, enjoying the peaceful freedom of the beach. Living on what he hunted, he reveled in the quiet of Fon Reni, knowing it was far from Darracia, his troubles, and the memories. He was tired, exhausted by grief, angry with his lack of solution. 
     Staf Nuen had disappeared. It was as though he had never existed. Zayden had spent almost a year 
tracking him, coming up with nothing but dead ends. He had traveled from one end of the solar system to the other, living by his wits, surviving hand to mouth, always just missing him. He must have gotten close, because he was jumped outside a graphen den on the planet Venturian. He woke up, disoriented, shamefaced, with his newfound friend, Denita, and with a colorful tattoo on his biceps. He watched the ripples rise from the dark sand, the heat sucking the air from his lungs. It was as hot as a furnace. He wore just his trousers, naked from the waist up, so he could see the stupid tattoo taking up most of his shoulder. The bruises on his torso had faded a bit, but his face still looked as battered as an old suitcase. Sweat evaporated as soon as it appeared, and he let the hot air roast him. He heard the foliage rustle behind him, made a face, then laughed softly at the curse he heard muttered behind the screen of the dense brush. 
     There were fourteen planets in his solar system, Darracia being his native one. He had left it in search of his uncle Staf Nuen, who had killed his father, King Drakko, leaving his legitimate half brother Vsair the reigning king. Vsair pleaded with him to stay as his advisor, Zayden remembered, rubbing the still raw scar that bisected his once handsome face. The new king had appointed him grand mestor, Zayden thought with chagrin. Imagine that, the bastard of King Drakko was offered the highest position in the land.
     He drew aimlessly in the dark sand with a broken stick. He didnt want it. He didnt want any part of it until he could bring Staf Nuen to justice. It was because of his uncles overthrow that his beloved Hilde was slain, killed by her psychotic brother when she protected Zayden from a death blow of a Fireblade. Clenching his hands into useless fists, he relived the last moments of her life.
     The empty socket where his amber eye used to be throbbed as though a thousand pickaxes were stabbing it. Pressing deeply with his palms, he covered his eyes, trying to blot out the images imprinted on his brain. 
     Blood, blood, and more blood, coupled with Hildes dying gasp as she collapsed into his arms, a sword robbing him of his future with the only woman he ever felt he could love. 
He glanced at his discarded Fireblade, thrown negligently on the sandy ground. He hadnt used it since that day, preferring the heavy pistol strapped to the side of his leg. Darracians disdained guns.
     Swords were for warriors, guns for cowards, he had been taught. His people valued the skill one developed with a blade, never respecting those beings who just aimed and fired. Guns were illegal at home, the punishment fierce if one was caught with such a firearm. His father had taught him it was dishonorable; if a warrior fought in combat, he must be engaged with his opponent, feel the heat of battle. Guns made warfare impersonal; there was no honor to kill without knowing the skill of your enemy. It showed lack of respect for the ideals of battle. That was why only a small part of the population knew how to fight with the Firebladeit kept violence at a 
minimum. Darracian warriors were taught to uphold justice, never kill for personal gain, and until his uncle had tried to overthrow the government, Darracia had been a relatively mild place to live. He had picked up the gun on the lawless space station, Pagil 7, far from the rules of Darracia. 
     After Vsair had rocked the foundation of the beliefs about the Fireblade, Zayden didnt want it anymore. It seemed that Darracians had gotten it all wrong. Chanters from all over his former home were meeting, trying to make sense out of the Sradda Doctrines. There were forums and debates; all the schools were rereading and trying to find new ways to interpret the messages of the Elements.
     Well, he didnt give a crap about all that religious stuff. His faith died when Hilde perished. He didnt know why he hadnt jettisoned the Fireblade from his portal as he traveled through deep space.
     He shrugged his broad shoulders, thinking perhaps because it was presented to him by his late father when he achieved his highest honors, and he was a sentimental fool, 
after all. He felt naked without it. He eyed his sword with resentment. Denita should never have taken it from the thug who tried to kill him. She should have left both him and the Fireblade to rot on the filthy streets of Venturian. Zayden sighed gustily. So here he sat, on the desolate beach of Fon Reni, reliving his nightmare and waiting for a sign. A signal for him to find Staf Nuen and kill him with his bare hands. 
     He watched the progress of the silver crabs as they clawed their way up the dark sand of the beach. The tiny feet worked in unison, scrabbling through dense patches of seaweed. There were hundreds of them. He tapped his stick thoughtfully. Well, he wouldnt have to work very hard for their dinner tonight. Pushing himself onto his feet, he stretched widely, feeling his cramped muscles expand and his bones crack. His head still ached where hed been beaten, and his ribs reminded him they werent all that healed after all. He grabbed a rush basket and then began to pluck the crabs from the ground until his container was a swirling mass of nervous creatures trying to escape. He placed them over the fire he had built earlier in an old helmet he used as a pot. Soon, he heard the crackle and hiss of their bursting shells, their color changing to an appetizing light green. He thought to call out that dinner was ready, but shrugged instead, plopping down on the sand to eat alone. Thats how he wanted to eat, by himself. His guest was nothing more than an encumbrance. He sneered at the dense forest behind him. Carefully, he pulled a cooked crab out of his makeshift pot, singeing his fingers, catching the green juice of the dripping crustacean with his tongue.
     The fire warmed him against the stiff ocean breeze, and memories of camping trips with his father and Vsair came rushing back like a tidal wave. They had stayed here, the three of them, on this very beach. Vsair was so young, his royal braid barely touching his shoulder. No servants were allowed, and though his fathers elite guards hovered in the sky above, they spent a sun-filled week on Fon  Reni that became a yearly ritual. They returned Vsair, to his mothers horror, a lovely shade of brown, his light- tannish blue skin burned and toughened by the strong rays of both suns. It was a special spot for Zayden. Here he was just Drakkos son and Vsairs older brother, not the illegitimate offspring of the king and his laundress.
     He had loved his father, as well as his royal younger brother, despite the differences in their stations, even though it appeared that he was the only one troubled by it. He was older by a good fifteen years, and he didnt begrudge his younger sibling his inheritance; however, sometimes he admitted to himself that he felt invisible. It was funny, he mused, Vsair envied Zaydens Darracian strength, and he valued what Vsair took most for granted, his assured place in Darracian hierarchy. Oh, Vsair always treated him with respect, had offered him the position of grand mestor, but Zayden knew what the others felt. He was seen as an interloper, barely tolerated despite the fact that he was one of the armys fiercest warriors. 
     He constantly pushed himself to be faster with his Fireblade, the hardest rider when it came to his stallius, as well as the best jolter in the tournaments. He lived by his warriors creed, happy to make his father proud. He enjoyed showing them all his royal placement was earned with dedication and hard work. But somehow the dynamics of the Fireblade had changed now. It was not about brute strength and chivalry, so where did it leave him? He reached over to grab his sword and heard it hum to life, great red streaks lighting with energy. He knew now it was the wrong color. It was the shade of anger, not strength. Once, it had been the true blue of justice and a force to be reckoned with. His had always been the blue of a pure heart, even though he never realized what it meant. Now it blazed red, like his enemys. The Fireblade was about something else now, and he didnt have the patience to try and understand. He was too tired. Angry and tired. 
     He threw the shells of his crab onto a neat pile, sucking the meat from the tiny claws. He should eat all of them, he thought with a mean chuckle. She missed the crabs nightly progress; Denita never learned. He eyed the last few crabs and groaned. Last time she had walked in the shallow waters she had cut her foot. No, it wasnt worth ithed have to nurse her again, and hear her complaints. She could be an ornery pain in the ass. Better leave her enough to satisfy her hunger. He tried to remember Hildes soft laughter, and Denitas velvet voice smothered the ladylike sound. Instead he pulled a frayed, black ribbon from a pouch and held it to his nose. Her scent was gone. Just like Hilde. Gone, forever. None of that mattered now, anyway. The one he wanted more than life was taken from him this last year, killed by the hand of her brother, Pacuto. Zayden could not rest until he brought her traitorous father to justice.
     The four moons lit the beach, bathing him in their glow. He watched phosphorus mengles dance under the waves, their multicolored poison glowing iridescently under the swirling sea. Swimming was out of the question. One sting from their tails and he would sink to the bottom of the water never to be seen again. He drank deeply from a flask, swallowing the burn of the liquor, his eye never leaving the horizon of the endless ocean. Then what would his guest do, he thought contemptuously. He needed this complication the way one needed a headache. She would do nothing but slow him down, and although they had a common hatred for Staf Nuen, Zayden parked himself here hoping shed lose interest. Denita had howled with outrage when he landed, screaming for him to proceed to Planta and find his uncle. He didnt need her or anyone else. He didnt want her or anyone else, for that matter.
     He eyed the circular mark on his upper bicep. It didnt hurt anymore, and he supposed Reminda would know someone who could get rid of it. As much as he hated it, he thought hed keep it now. It was just another scar, like his ruined face, marked on this journey for revenge. Taking a faded patch from his pocket, he covered the empty place where his eye used to be. A comet streaked across the sky. He searched his memory for its name and came up with nothing. Due to his flight patterns, he knew every celestial event in the sky. Hearing about this one must have escaped him. He watched its progress, its feathered tail stretched out for miles, curving toward the west. Comets always meant something. Emmicus, his old tutor, always said that. Something was going to happen, he thought, wiping the back of his hand against his mouth. The salt and sand burned against his lips. Yes, he scanned the stygian sky, something was coming, he just wasnt sure of when or what. 

Available on Bargain Booksy April 6, 2018:

Amazon - Link:

Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, 24 Symbols, Angus & Robertson - Link:

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

*AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT* Talking Tales: Puppy's Bubble by Erica Graham

Talking Tales: Puppy's Bubble
Erica Graham

ISBN #: 978-0997855531

This award-winning book is designed by speech-language pathologist, Erica Graham, to help promote babbling and first words while following Puppy on his search for the missing bubble. Puppy's Bubble is part of the Talking Tales series.


Tuesday, March 27, 2018





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Thursday, March 22, 2018

*AUTHOR HIGHLIGHT* Chasing The Chalice: A Collection Of Verses by Laura Berlin

Chasing The Chalice: A Collection Of Verses
by Laura Berlin

Book Genre:  Love Poetry

A collection of lyrical, whimsical romantic verse ascribed to the letters of the alphabet.

ISBN: 1500521272

Buying Info:  Amazon (Ebook and Print Book) :

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Pokergeist by Michael Phillip Cash (Chapter 1) + LINKS FOR MORE

Michael Phillip Cash

For the Casella’s and Salzman’s- When I think of Vegas, I think of all of you.

“Like taking candy from a baby,” Clutch Henderson took a deep pull on his whiskey, allowing the burn to numb him from gullet to stomach. The room reeked of smoke, even though it was not allowed in the main ballroom during the tournament. Overhead, giant television screens focused on two players, Clutch looked up, winked and watched the camera close in on his craggy face. “I still got it,” he smirked at his image. He was tall and lanky, deeply tanned which set off his silver hair and light eyes. Even though he was pushing seventy, he knew the ladies still found him attractive. They didn’t call him the Silver Fox for nothing. Clutch patted the blister pack of Viagra in the pocket of the polyester bowling shirt that he wore in homage to the Big Lebowski, the fictional kingpin legend. Gineva should be picking up a celebratory bottle of champagne, right now, as soon as she clocked out of the Nugget. They wouldn’t give her off today, the bastards. There was a good chance he was going to make an honest woman out of her tonight. A rich, honest woman. Clutch shifted in his seat, his hemorrhoids making their presence known. They burned his ass, more than the cocky kid sitting opposite him.  He looked over to his opponent sunk low in his seat, his face swallowed by the gray hoodie he wore. Adam ‘the Ant’ Gersten, boy wonder, who rose from the ranks of online card games, beating out the impossible one hundred and sixty five thousand players to earn a coveted seat at the International Series of Poker. His pimply face peeked from under oversized sunglasses. Clutch sneered contemptuously at him, they let everybody play today. The kid did look bug-eyed with those enormous glasses. Adam curled his hands protectively over his cards, his bitten down fingernails repulsive.

“Rookie,” Clutch muttered under his breath, his lips barely moving.

“Looks like Clutch Henderson is praying, folks.” Kevin Franklyn said into his mike fro the spot where he sat in a small room watching the game. He was a former champion turned seasoned sportscaster on the poker circuit, well respected and the senior of the two anchormen. He was completely bald, his fleshy nose slightly off center on his craggy face, a victim of his youthful and unsuccessful boxing career. He made a mint once he turned to poker and never looked back.

Stuart James shook his head, responding, “Clutch could be at his last prayers, this kid is the Terminator.”  Stuart was a tall cowboy, with a wavy blond head and mustache left over from his nineteen seventy’s poker heydays.

“Let’s see if Clutch can exterminate the Ant,” Kevin replied.

They shared a laugh. The sportscasters wore matching light blue sports jackets with the Poker Channel logo on the chest.

Kevin nodded, placing his hand on the ear bud, then said, “Yes, this is it folks, in case you’ve just tuned in. A record fourteen thousand entrants, all coming down to this, the final moments. Rookie versus the Pro, it could have been scripted by a screenwriter. David versus Goliath. Adam ‘the Ant’ Gersten going up against legendary Clutch Henderson.”

Kevin continued, “Legendary yes, but Clutch has yet to take home that million dollar bracelet, Stu. This must be his eighteenth time at the title.”

“Nineteenth. However, he did come in sixth place last year.”

Kevin nodded. “But the Ant is certainly the Cinderella story of the year. An online poker phenom who beat out thousands of players in a twenty dollar online satellite game. And here he is today. How old is he?”

Stuart turned around to a huge monitor. “Not quite sure, but I found out a lot about him earlier today when I interviewed him. Let’s watch the screen.”  

Stuart was in a suite overlooking the strip. It was hotter than hell outside, but the room was icy cold. The Ant slouched in a Louis XV Bergere chair, his hands deep in the pocket of the jersey hoodie. The gold brocade of the chair was a stark contrast to the varied shades of gray he habitually wore. His Converse clad feet lay propped on a golden rococo coffee table.  Stuart noticed Adam seemed unaware that the rubber of his tennis shoes peeled off the gilt surface of the coffee table. Everytime he moved, another strip of paint flaked away.

“Nice room Ant,” Stu leaned forward, his large hands gesturing the spacious suite. Everythign about the newscaster was big, from his shoes, to his huge chest. He was a former ranger cum football player, and avid golfer. The ant truly resembled an insect next to the bigger man.   “You have quite a view.”

Ant shrugged indifferently. “I don’t care about stuff like this. I’m happy with a room in Motel 6.”

“This is a far cry from Motel 6. Why do they call you the Ant?”

“I’m small,” Ant smiled revealing a tiny, ferret like teeth that looked mashed together. He had dark eyes, a frizzy curl escaped his hood to land over his shiny forehead. “But, I can carry fifty times my weight in chips.” He laughed.

“Ha!” Stuart joined him.  “Fifty times. Is that what you’re expecting to take home.”

“Maybe more, if I can help it,” Ant added defensively.

“Adam, I mean, Ant, you’re coming into the final table with little more than half the chips in play.” Stu paused for effect. “What’s your strategy in the face off with the legendary Clutch Henderson.”

Ant looked straight into the camera, his dark eyes fierce. “I want to eat that old shit alive.” The curse was bleeped out by the station.

Stuart shifted uncomfortably. “That’s pretty competitive, son.”

“Let’s get this straight. I’m not your son, Stu.” This was said with dripping scorn.

“Alright, Ant,” Stuart’s voice turned decidedly cool, he did not like this kid. The sportscaster was freezing as well. What the hell was wrong with the air conditioner.  Stu suppressed a shiver, as he smoothed his mustache. Ant was cold as ice, not a drop of human kindness flowed in his veins, Stuart thought. Not only that, he could swear the kids lips were turning blue. He wanted to end this farce and get out of Dodge.  “How do you plan on winning against one of the greatest cash players of the last century?”

Ant glanced out at the stark light in the picture windows. Heat shimmered in the desert, making the horizon look smeared and indistinct. The strip was jammed already, a long line of red tail lights filled the road, as cars made their way down Las Vegas Blvd.

“The ants go marching one by one…” Ant hummed the nursery song in his head, lost in the moment.

“Ant.” Stu pulled him back.

The younger man stared at him blankly, as if he’d just awakened. He twisted to look at the messy bar, just off camera. Crushed cans of beer and energy drinks littered the floor of the suite. Stuart could see laundry strewn all over the bedroom adjacent to the living area. Turning back slowly, dismissing one of the most important sports interviews on television, Ant said brusquely, “Next question.”

“Alright,” Stuart pursed his lips, trying not to lose patience. Maybe the kid was on something, he thought. He’d been playing in eighteen hour shifts for days now, beating out thousands of players. The interview was going to the crapper fast, and this surly guy might be the next world champion. Give me something, he checked his notes, then blurted, “How does it feel to rise from relative obscurity to find yourself face to face the the one and only Clutch Henderson?”

“Look, this story is about me, right?” Ant jabbed his finger into Stu’s face. “Not him. I’m the greatest player.  I’m gonna create my own legacy and it’s gonna be tonight.”

Stuart sat back in his seat, shocked by Ant’s hostility.  “Isn’t that a little premature articulation?” Stu couldn’t help the jab. This kid was nuts. He must be wired on the cans of caffeinated drinks tossed all over the floor of the bar area.

The screen faded as the two sportscasters turned to face each other.

“Interesting interview, so what did you really learn about Adam ‘the Ant’ Gersten,” Kevin chuckled as he shook his bald head with amusement.

“Not a whole lot, Kev. He is a closed mouth little guy.” He turned to gaze down at the single table where ten million in cash had been strewn across the green blaise in anticipation of the winner. A chunky gold bracelet glittered from the nest of cash, looking like pirate plunder. “It’s so quiet down there, you can actually hear the Ant thinking ‘I am the best player at this table.’”

Kevin rolled a pen between his fingers. “The fairy-tale story versus the legend. Let’s not forget that Clutch may be the greatest earner in the history of the game. Fifty million in lifetime earnings, one hundred and twenty one cashes. Twelve final tables, four number one best selling books.”

“What about his instructional videos? He made a mint with those in the nineties. Looks like Ant’s asked for a break.”

“Getting back to Clutch, he’s written what many call the bible of poker: Clutch Time: To Live and Die at the Poker Table. Will he make history tonight, Kevin?”

“He should. Been trained by the best, poker runs in the family.” They shared a laugh.

“I’d call the Henderson’s Poker Royalty.”

Kevin nodded in agreement. “I’ll say. Clutch is well respected on the circuits, not many those kind of guys them left. A true gentleman, a dying breed. I had an interview with him today, let’s take a look.” Kevin turned back to his screen to the other interview earlier in the day.

“You’re close,” Kevin grinned at Clutch. Clutch inclined his head with a gracious smile. They were in his residence, a ranch in the seedier part of Vegas. Clutch sat on a gold velvet sofa, covered with plastic slip covers in a heavy Mediterranean style leftover from the seventies. His girlfriend Ginny beamed from the kitchen as the interview progressed. Just past fifty, she was a chubby, Filipina woman with brassy blonde hair that clashed with her olive complexion. Kevin knew they’d been together for more than ten years, but Clutch was still married to his wife, Jenny Henderson. Kevin paused for a minute and wondered if Clutch ever called Ginny; Jenny, or Jenny; Ginny. That could make for some uncomfortable moments.  

Ginny leaned against the doorjamb as the spotlight shined on Clutch’s silver head. She had pressed his shirt earlier today and made the sharp crease in his pants as well. His scuffed cowboy boots were too old to take the polish, and only she knew that cardboard replaced the worn soles.

“Very close,” Kevin pressed. “One play away from claiming your first ever International Series Main Event bracelet.”

“Livin’ the dream, man.” Clutch looked happy, his blue eyes were dreamy. The camera caressed his face.

“How do you feel?”

Clutch cocked his head. “With my fingers,” Clutch said, wiggling his slender fingers for the camera. He glanced to Ginny as if to share a private joke. Winking, he smiled widely and a blush rose across her ample chest. She had great tits, Ginny did. He knew that for a fact. He paid for them. He turned back to the interviewer. “Look, I’ve been playing this game since my grandaddy showed me the difference between an Ace and a Deuce.  I’ve prepared my whole life. I’ve been taught by the best.”

“Buster Henderson practically created poker.”

“You ain’t lying,” Clutch agreed. “We didn’t have a kitchen table. We ate off a poker blaise and there was always a game going on. Ruthie, my grandmother was a pretty good player too.”

“Yet it skipped a generation.”

“My Daddy died on the beach in Normandy,” Clutch explained. “He never had time to learn the game.”

“And your mother?”

“Never knew her. Buster and Ruthie raised me. They lived and breathed poker.”

“Must have been an interesting childhood living with not only one, but two poker legends.”

“Yeah,” Clutch agreed darkly. “It was a barrel of laughs.”

“What do you think Buster would say today to you as you enter the final table.”

“Better not screw this one up, boy, or I’m gonna kill you.”

They shared a chuckle. “He was a character,” Kevin added.

“Yep, “ Clutch wasn’t smiling anymore. “A real character.”

“All kidding aside, even if you lose, second place has a hefty payout.” Kevin looked at his notes. “You stand to win four million.”

Clutch shook his head. “Sometimes it ain’t about the money. My Grandpa won that bracelet over sixty years ago. It’s time for me to win mine.”

“Hummm. Clutch, how do you feel about the advent of online players today, namely your final opponent, The Ant?”

Clutch sat forward, his hands together, his face thoughtful. “The internet has more porn than you can shake a stick at. What good is that? You can’t touch a computer. It’s sterile. In the end, the game ain’t real if it’s through a machine. Romance and cards have got to be in real time, face to face.” He let the comparisons sink in.  “Nothing like the feel of a real woman.”

“Hilarious, Clutch,” Kevin laughed, sharing the macho moment with him.

“Now the real world has real women.” Clutch glanced back at Ginny, who grinned back at him. She had the worse teeth. They never fixed her teeth in the Philippines when she was a child. That was the first thing he was going to do when he won, take her to have implants. Well, after he got a new car, paid his bookies, and paid off back child support. She never asked for anything, Ginny. She was a good kid. “Poker is a game about communication. It’s about reading people, knowing what they are thinking. You can communicate over the internet. You can’t have a relationship with keyboard and a screen, well, at least not an honest one. You can’t learn poker with a machine. Ain’t natural.”

“Have you any old tricks up your sleeve?”

Clutch looked at the frayed fabric of his dress shirt. The stripes were so old, there was just a hint of color in the thin cotton. He looked at the gray hairs sticking out of the cuff. He touched the bony point of his wrist, imagining the heavy weight of the bracelet. His Grandpa left the bracelet to his cousin Alf. Alf never even played poker. He had wanted it for so long, every year scraping the money together to get into the tournament, playing with infants, hacks, and women who thought they could flirt you out of the game. He was good. He knew he was the best and he should’ve won a hundred times. A thousand times, he shook his head, it came so close, so very close only to escape his clutches.

“Clutch…” Kevin’s insistent voice interrupted his wandering mind, pulling him back.“Clutch, you were saying?”

“Oh, we gonna teach that lil doggy how to make pee pee on a wee wee pad.” The screen faded to black.

Kevin’s shoulders shook with laughter. He turned to Stu. “That Clutch, he is something else.”

“I’ll say. I think he has his metaphors confused. He may need a can of Raid instead of a wee wee pad. Oh, the Ant is back from his break. Let’s see how the game is going.”

Clutch and Ant sat opposite each other, the room tense and silent. The older man pressed his cards into the table, bending just the tip to glance at the letters or numbers in the corner. Kings, a good solid hand. He kept his face impassive, stifling a yawn. Ant simply ignored him, a bored expression on his face. Between them, a colorful cascade of chips littered the table. The room crackled with excitement. Clutch looked up at the dealer who stonily stared into space. He smiled, the dealer turned and nodded respectfully revealing perfect teeth against his dark skin. They both looked to the Ant, who bristled with hostility.

Clutch narrowed his eyes, a trickle of sweat began to make it’s way down from his temple. He stared hard at Ant’s face, the dark glasses making him an enigma. Ant was looking everywhere except at him. Why wasn’t the kid studying him, looking for tells, the signs every person makes that gives a clue to what they are holding. He watched his opponent intently. Ant glanced upward before he made a move, as if asking permission from the atmosphere. While he couldn’t see the kid’s eyes because of the dark glasses, Clutch knew he was looking towards the ceiling from the tilt of his head. A few times, Clutch caught his own eyes gazing in the same direction, wondering what the punk was up to. The room became hot.  He was willing to take this to the matts. Based on the kids whitened fingertips, Clutch’s gut told him the younger man had nothing. Clutch had a decent hand. He peered at Ant’s cards on the table, as if he could see through the design to the face hidden. The kid liked to bluff, he had watched him do it all through the tournie. Clutch was willing to bet his last chip that Ant had a junk hand. “Check,” Clutch said quietly.

“No check, old man. I bet three million.” Ant pushed five stacks into the middle of the table. The crowd hummed with excitement.  Ant pulled off his glasses to glare hard at Clutch, his mouth pulled tight with intensity. Clutch looked into the younger man’s eyes and saw nothing. Nothing.

Clutch shrugged. “You wanbees sure think you know how this game is played. Lemme tell you something, pardner…” He placed his stetson on his head as if to make a point.

“Spare me the sage advice, Cowpoke, you’re done. I’m waiting to stick a fork in you.”

“Eight million,” Clutch said, his voice serious. The crowd applauded loudly as he pushed in a huge pile of chips.

“I just started, Pops, and you want to go down in flames already. Raise! All in,” Ant sneered.

Clutch waited. He had patience. A murmur echoed through the room. He could swear he heard the ticking of a clock. He wanted to draw out the moment. His heart started to pound in his chest pulsing so hard he felt all the way to his toes. “Call,” he said so quietly, the dealer leaned forward to confirm.  

Ant dramatically turned over his cards revealing an ace and a seven, both of them hearts. The red cards reflected back at Clutch until they filled his vision.

A slow smile spread across Clutch’s impassive face. He watched the younger man, savoring the glory as he slowly flipped his cards revealing pocket kings. He had two kings, a good, solid hand. Not unbeatable, but the kid had nothing but an overcard.

“Here comes the flop,” Clutch spoke his thoughts aloud, as he watched the dealer place Ace of Spades, and Clutch’s own heart sunk in his chest. Now Ant had a higher hand, two Aces. The crowd gasp turned into a roar as the dealer spread the next two cards on the blaise revealing  a King of Hearts and deuce of Hearts. He dodged a bullet, his three kings would beat Ant’s two Aces. Clutch took his off cowboy hat, the sweatband was soaked. His gray hair lay plastered against his head, the imprint of his hat looking like he had worn a vice.“Trip cowboys, piss ant.” Clutch drew out the last word into a hiss.

There were two hearts on the table. Two cards were to be revealed, the Turn, then the River. Sixty- forty in Clutches favor, he estimated. Clutch felt his heart quiver with uncertainty.

The kid had a draw, two cards to go and all Clutch needed to do was avoid a heart that did not match the table to claim his prize. The crowd exploded. Ant stared at the card on the table, his expression hostile.

“We don’t need a commentary, old man. I got eyes. I can see,” Ant snapped.  Ant’s dark eyes glazed over for a minute, he looked away, then turned back, his attention restored.

Clutch sat back in his chair, suddenly tired. His shoulders ached, and he longed to be back home, in bed, watching television. But the bracelet. He was so close.  He glanced at Ant’s cards, then studied his own. The patterns swam before his tired eyes, as though they were alive. Clutch sat back in his seat. He was there, almost there. He could feel the heavy weight of the bracelet on his skinny wrist the the cash in his empty pocket. Sweat dotted Ants upper lip, his eye twitched. There were so many chips spread across the table making the pot seem obscene.

Ant half rose from his seat, his face eager. He dark eyes glowed hotly, with hot red pinpoints in the pupils. He looked demented. HIs fingers pressed whitely against the green blaise of the table.   All he need was another heart and there were two cards left to go.

Ant stood completely, Clutch was surprised at how short he really was. He would barely reach Clutch’s shoulder. “Great hand, Pops.” Ant nodded sarcastically. “But you need heart to play this game.”

The dealer  barely breathed as he waited for the right moment to deal the next card, the turn.

The crowd stood, the babble of thousands of voices drowning out the pulse in Clutch’s head. His body thrummed, his face grew as red as the cards, sweat drenching his shirt so that it plastered against his tense body.  He undid the top button of his shirt, feeling the collar choke him. The possibility of coming in second went through his head. It would be a nice purse, four million at least. But, after taxes and the funds to pay off the loan sharks, he’d barely have enough for his kid or Ginny’s teeth. Truth was, he didn’t give a shit about the dough, he wanted the bracelet. He needed that trophy to wear on his wrist for the rest of his miserable life. Too bad, Buster wasn’t alive to see it. He wanted to shove it in his face and gloat.  It sparkled from it’s spot on the table. Clutch swallowed convulsively, his neck feeling tight. He looked at the creep across the table. Ant didn’t deserve it, Clutch did. This was the closest he’d ever come. He stared at the bracelet, the gold at the end of the rainbow. He could hear his grandfather’s voice, dead these last forty-five years saying, ‘It’s about the game, stupid. Not the gold. You play like crap. You never listen to me, boy.’ Yeah, Clutch sneered, easy for you to say, you won a bracelet in 1954. Clutch glanced down at his two cards, his kings.  With the third on the table he had three kings, a good hand. He had to piss, really bad.

The dealer turns over a six of clubs, the audience moaned. A black card, not a heart. Without the fifth heart, the kid would bust.  Clutch’s breath stilled in his chest. He was almost there. His heart pounded in his chest as if were a kettledrum. One last card to go. He looked at the insect’s hand. The kids hands were trembling, his knuckles boney white like a skeleton. He had nothing. This was it. He had this. The dealer paused, his hand hovering over the deck. His manicured fingers caressed the top card, then flipped it onto the green table. An eight of hearts lay on the blaise, earning Ant a winning flush. The crowd buzzed, a thousand voices washing over Clutch’s numb face. His breath left him in a slow deflation until he felt flat. He wanted to disappear.

Ant yelled like a little girl, his hands high up in the air. He pranced in front of the bleachers to the screaming fans, then mugged the camera. Kevin raced from his spot, mike in hand, to the older man. “Clutch, Clutch. What happened? That was so fast.”

Clutch stared at the cards, his face impassive, the pain of his broken heart heavy in his chest. “I...I…” Words failed him. He couldn’t breath. The room was stifling, closing in on him. His vision narrowed to the cluster of cards on the table, the bracelet winking at him. They shimmered before him, the noise of the spectators muffled, his ears rang. He still had to pee. In fact, he was drowning. He heard laughter. It was familiar. He looked around frantically to see who was laughing at him. The pain started in his chest, then radiated to his shoulders, clamping around his jawline. His eyes dimmed.

He felt Kevin’s chubby hand grip his shoulder. It hurt. The announcer’s voice came from far away. “Clutch, Clutch are you okay?”

“No,” he wanted to scream, but his own voice seemed foreign, the words coming out jumbled and thick. “No, my dream died.” He watched the room recede, the world strangely quiet, the floor came up to meet his chin.

Ant turned to see the older man fall. “Oh,” he thought, as he heard Clutch’s head connect with the floor. “That’s gotta hurt.” He turned to his adoring fans, and pumped his fist into the air. The bracelet gripped in his clenched hand.

Kevin struggled to get down on his knees. “Clutch, Clutch.” He shook the old man’s shoulder. His face drained of color. “Get an ambulance,” he screamed. He looked closely at Clutch. “Help…” he said sadly, knowing it was too late for an ambulance. They needed a hearse.

Chapter one- one year later

A gray haze hung over the Bellagio poker room, the thick air muffled with the sound of murmuring voices. Telly Martin leaned his face glumly into his palm, trying hard to control his expression. His dark hair needed a haircut, but that cost money, so he was going for a shaggy look he told Gretchen. The longer hair complimented his high cheekbones and indigo eyes. He was trim, just a bit on the thinner side, he knew. He was watching, he told his mother a week ago. Watching his small change, he added to himself. There just wasn’t enough right now, the money only went so far. He bought into this game an hour ago. It was a cheap game, low limit, but that was about all he had left in his budget this week. He refused to take any more money from Gretchen, that was for sure. If this one didn’t pan out, he’d rethink the cab driver job Gretchen suggested again last week. He didn’t want to do that, though. It would interfere with the games. Cab drivers put in long hours, had to be available for the many events went on all the time in Vegas, and he’d miss his chance to play in the World Series. All he had to do was come up with the ten grand. Ten grand, Telly sighed. Not much three years ago, today an impossible dream. He had a good job in IT at one of the casinos. Worked the computers in the communication department. It was boring, but steady. He’d bought a nice house, Gretchen had moved in, and he had planned to marry her that spring. Then the casino was bought. The purchaser has an existing IT department. Telly was redundant, they told him. He didn’t feel redundant, irrelevant, maybe, irrelevant, perhaps. Redundant, definitely not, he thought hotly. He was one of a kind, he knew. The only one in the department to bring in doughnuts on Tuesday. How could that be viewed as redundant?  Didn’t he organize the yearly softball game that raised money for the Children’s Cancer Society? Who was doing that now, he wanted to know. No duplication of that service. He created the Senior’s Glee Club, arranging for a local nursing home to have entertainers from the casino’s show come and sing with the elderly people. That program was laying an egg, he heard. They didn’t have anyone on staff to do that. But Telly was redundant, unnecessary, and currently unemployed.

“Today, Telly,” Hamdi the dealer, formerly from Cairo, or so his name tag informed them, pointed to the cards in the middle of the blaise. “It’s your bet, sur.” His hometown accent drew out the vowels confirming the truth of his Egyptian heritage.

Telly looked up at Hamdi, smiling. “Like it here, Hamdi?” Playing at the casino was nothing like a home game. There was no repartee, socializing was frowned upon. He expected being a professional poker player to be ...well.. more fun. It wasn’t. The tables were tense, with a distinct unfriendly feel. While Telly was a reasonable player with his weekend buddies, he was mortified at how little he really knew. One fumble and everybody lost respect for you at the table. The trouble was, nobody had patience.

“Indeed,” Hamdi smiled, a mouthful of white teeth. “You are holding up the game. Your bet.”

“Um,” Telly looked at the sea of faces around him. They were in varying degrees of openly hostile, to bored out of their minds. “Four dollars?”

“Are you asking, sur?”

The man to Telly’s right, smirked. “I reraised. Weren’t you watching?”

“So,” Telly stared at the sparse pile of chips in the center. “I’m supposed to…” He looked at his cards again. His mind had gone blank, he didn’t remember exactly where he was in the game. He dragged a hand through his dark hair., that’s what you get for daydreaming. He hated this feeling.

Hamdi leaned closer. “If you want to see his hand, you have to bet another four dollars, bring it to a  total of eight.”

Telly looked at his meager stack of chips. He’d double his money if he won. He stared at the ceiling. Then, he considered the revolving plastic image of Marilyn Monroe, her dress fluttering around her, spinning at a kiosk of slot machines across the floor. Gretchen would look pretty in that dress, he thought absently.  His ears picked out a chorus of cries celebrating a slot win. He failed to see his neighbor observing his every move, the unlit cigar frozen the other man’s mouth, the smell of wet tobacco offensive. Telly gingerly picked up eight dollar chips, sliding them into the pile. “Call.” He liked the way he sounded. Like he was a professional. Really. He’d tell Gretch all about it tonight when she got off from work. They turned over the rest of their cards.  

“Two pair, five’s and ten’s,” Hamdi informed the table sweeping Telly’s coins away toward the gruff older man next to him.

“Well, I had two pair too,” Telly flushed explaining his error as he watched his chips join the other man’s stacks.

“Sugar,” the woman next to him said. “He had two tens showing since third street. You had sixes and fours.” She had long turquoise fingernails with rings on every finger. She stroked her stack of dollar coins suggestively. Telly turned to face her, noticing that she wore thick fake lashes that sort of resembled the roach he killed this morning in the apartment. She sported an artificial beauty mark above her top lip. Her hair was long and black, with odd bangs cut straight across her forehead. It was a hairstyle for a young person, Telly thought observing her. It was like playing with a wrinkled Angelina Jolie. The woman looked hard at him, the sequins on her cowboy jacket sparkling under the muted light. Tiny lines radiated from her thin lips, and the dark red lipstick bled into them. She looked like the Revlon spokesperson for Zombies.

“How could I have missed that,” he looked back at the older man, sucking on the cigar.

“You a virgin, or something, Sugar?”

“I beg your pardon?” Telly was agast.

The players at the table laughed. There were a few snorts mixed with chuckles.

“You’re new at this game is all I’m saying.” She fluttered the roach eyelashes. Telly was fascinated. She had a line of rhinestones pasted to each eyelid.

“I’ve played my share of games,” Telly said defensively.

“A regular Clutch Henderson. Listen buddy, if you’re playing in the International Series next week, let me know. I want to sit right next to you,” an older player wearing a hearing aide said from across the table.

“Me too.” This from a retired African American postman who now played nightly at the casino.

Telly gathered up the remainder of his chips, his face flush with embarrassment.  “I’m glad I provided you all with an evenings entertainment,” he mumbled. He looked around the table at their wizened faces. Most had skin so tough it looked like his old baseball mitt buried in the closet at home. Half of them smoked, the other half drank, and who knew what the hell the Zombie woman did in her spare time. Did he really want to do this?

“Sorry if I interrupted the flow of the game,” he apologized.

“A word of advice,” Cigar Chomper called out in a grizzled voice.

“Yes,” Telly paused expectantly, touched the man would help him out.

The old guy cleared his throat, the table stilled and sang, “You gotts know when to hold'em, know when to fold ‘em.” He sang the Kenny Rogers Gambler song. The table erupted in glee, and even Telly chuckled, laughing at both them and himself.

“Oh right, thanks a lot.” He stuffed the chips into his pocket and waved farewell. “I’ll keep that in mind.” He smiled sheepishly. “Goodnight.”  He heard the raucous laughter even after he left the poker room to walk through the enormous casino to cash out at the cashier. The floor’s busy pattern danced before his tired eyes, he continued, his head down, feeling just on the edge of stupid. Maybe he should look into driving a cab, until he landed a better job, instead of pursuing this pipe dream. It’s just that the videos made it seem so easy. Anybody could do it. He was tired of working in an office for the same paycheck every week. While he had only invested a couple of weeks in this enterprise, he did win at the Station Casino last Tuesday. They had dined out on his winnings for at least a week, as well as paid the rent, bought shoes, and wired money for the electric. The problem was, the money didn’t last long enough. He had to leave enough of a stake for the next game, and when he lost, the one after than.  It can be done, if he hit a streak, Telly thought. After he got let go at his job, he held onto the house as long as he could, but without steady income, he missed a few of the mortgage payments. The bank put it on the market last week. He and Gretchen had moved into a weekly rental in a part of town that had more pawn shops than grocery stores.

Telly felt his arm being pulled. He turned to find his friend Misty gripping him. “Telly, I called and called you. You didn’t answer. Is everything okay?” She was just past twenty five, slender and tall, with a perky blonde ponytail. A tray of cigars and cigarettes hung from a strap over her capable shoulders. He banged into it gently, but they both grunted.

“Sorry, Misty,” Telly said.

“No worries, Tel. How’d you do?”

“Nah. The cards were against me.”  He shook his head.

Misty looked at him sympathetically, her eyes soft. “Don’t you worry Telly. You’re going to hit it big. I know it.”

Telly shrugged, his face turned downward.

“Anyways, I wanted to thank you for the signed Pete Rose baseball card. Gregory loved it.”

“Did the surgery go well?”

Misty swallowed, her gray eyes filling. She lifted her shoulder. “We are hoping they got it all. He starts treatment Thursday.”

“I’m glad he liked it. It was one of my favorites. My grandma bought it for me.”

“Aww, Telly. You’re so generous. How about you and Gretchen come by for a barbeque next week.”

Telly thought for a minute. “I’d love to, but the series starts and I’m hoping to make the entry fee.”

Misty rested her hand on his shoulder. She leaned forward kissing his smooth cheek. “Then I’m planning on watching you on the television when you finish first place. Don’t give up!” Misty was momentarily diverted by someone asking for a package of smokes. Telly waved and walked towards the valet. He considered spending the last of his stash on an ten dollar ice cream cone. He stared at the dripping fountains of chocolate, his mouth watering. Telly considered the line, deciding to keep his change for something both he and Gretchen could enjoy. Moving on, he passed the atrium, the fragrance of hundreds of flowers heavy on the air. He heard waterfalls, birds chirping. Even though he was inside a giant casino, he felt like he was strolling in a park. His feet slowed at the window of the jeweler just before the lobby of the hotel. In the center of the display, a radiant cut yellow diamond rotated on a circular bed of white velvet. Set in platinum, with two dazzling baguettes on either side, the buttery colored stone glowed warmly. Telly stood transfixed by it’s beauty. His eyes focused on the rainbow depths of the diamond, and he pictured it on Gretchen’s hand. She had hocked the ring he bought her last year when he needed dental work done.

“Like it,” the clerk asked. She was so thin, you almost see through her. Slick back red hair that could not have been produced by nature, was scraped into a painful bun. She minced outside in dagger black heels. “I asked if you like yellow diamond,” she asked in a thick Russian accent.

“It’s really nice.”

“Nice!” she laughed. “Nice he says.” Telly stared at her enormous teeth. “You buy for your girl.  I make you good deal.”

“How much is it,” Telly asked boldly.

“Eighty thousand dollars, if you pay cash.” She said thousand pronouncing the "th" with a "t" sound.

“When I win the Series, I’ll be back for it,” he told her.

“When you win the series? Ya, I wait for you.” She threw back her head laughing gustily.

“Hey, stranger things have happened,” Telly said to her retreating back.

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