The guy on the left was cheating. Not just counting cards, but cheating. And not hiding it very well. That's the worst. When they think you're so stupid or blind that they can just mark cards right in front of you. Asshats.
I glanced around for Howie, the Pit Boss, but he was busy making nice with some high roller (well, as high a roller as get in this hole in the wall). I looked back at my table. Besides Cheater McCheaterson, there were three other players: Sloppy Drunk, Will and Grace (Will was playing while Grace just watched), and Little Old Lady. Old Lady was up by about a hundred. Not bad, considering this was a two dollar table. Even better, since Cheater was only up fifty bucks.
Howie finally looked my way. I tilted my head toward Cheater. Howie nodded and radioed security.
Little Old Lady collected her winnings and wandered off toward the nickel slots. I dealt the next hand. Cheater stood on soft thirteen while I was showing a four. No wonder he needed to cheat. Will and Grace stopped bantering just long enough to tell me they wanted a card. Sloppy hit on nineteen. The bastard drew himself a two. I flipped my card. Queen. One more. An eight. Bust. I passed Cheater his chips.
"Shoulda doubled down." I figured I'd be nice and give him some decent advice since he was about to get thrown out into the street.
"You should have doubled down," I over enunciated, sliding Will his winnings. "I had four, you had soft thirteen. Hi/Lo card count says there's a heckuva lot of high cards in the remaining half of the shoe."
Nice. He was a one-word answer kind of guy. I wondered which word he'd choose when his ass hit the pavement.
"Give me twenty bucks."
"No way, I won this!"
"With my money."
"You're not even supposed to be on the floor."
"Yeah, that's great, Andrew, advertise that one."
"No one heard. Now stop bugging me, Summers."
"At least give me the room key so I can lock you out."
"Temper, temper. Just be cool and … crap, here comes security."
"Great. This is great."
"Look casual. Or go to the bathroom."
"How will that help?"
"No, like, go… over there. So they don't catch you."
The thing I hated most about smoking was that I liked it. "Cigarettes, bad" was the anthem continually preached to my generation, particularly by my mother, the doctor. I was well aware that I was a pawn of the tobacco companies. But it didn't matter. I liked it. More so, I liked the camaraderie between smokers, the conversations that began with "Gotta light?" and "Can I bum one of those?"
Though, sometimes, it was a solo activity. Like now. The walk home was always a deep personal moment between myself and my pal Mr. Lucky Strike. Or, more recently, Mr. Lucky Strike Light.
On this particular night, as I flicked the cigarette, something caught my eye. The deduction of the average person would simply chalk it up to flying ash, but I wasn't one of those people. It was almost as if someone was watching me. It wasn't the first time it had happened. Or the second. Or even the third, for that matter. I'd always been overly perceptive of the slightest things and once I'd hit the height of awkward adolescence at fifteen, it had skyrocketed. My physical abilities perked up around that time, too. "Perked up" might be an understatement. Especially if you ask the guy in the coma. Not that I want him to wake up. He was a grabby rapist asshole who deserved every cracked rib and skull fracture he got bouncing down those stairs.
A glance over my shoulder assured me there was nothing there. Or if there had been, it was gone.
"You really need to learn to shut up."
"Hey, now, I'm the senior officer here, Missy."
"Am too! I've officially been training under Mr. Giles longer! Just because you two have a longstanding personal relationship does not give you the right to undermine me."
"It just gives me the right to call him up and tell him you're an asshead. And that you used the company credit card for your WarCraft subscription."
"It is a strategic tool!"
"You're a tool. Do we even know where we are?"
"It's the next street, I think."
"Better be. My feet are killing me."
"Those shoes look great, though."
"Totally flattering to the calves."
"Thanks-- Hey! I'm still mad at you."
This was the routine. For two years I'd taken this walk from the Shoreside Casino down the row of cheap motels to the Holiday Inn Express, which was just a step enough above the preceding lodging establishments to erase the worry of finding a dead whores in the mattresses from the minds of any lodgers. It was a far cry from the cozy girl ridden dorms of Westlake Academy, but when you slam a two hundred pound janitor through a wall and down three flights, even by semi-accident, there are a lot of questions you don't want to stick around and answer.
So, there I was, taking my nightly stroll from point A to point B, when things took a sudden turn toward the atypical.
A guy had been following me. That alone wasn't unusual. In fact, it was disturbingly standard. A pretty, young girl out walking alone was a magnet for vulgar, slobbering drunks. Sometimes they just hung back, watching, not making any physical advances, just giving live renditions of obscene phone calls. Other times they'd try to grab me, cop a feel. And then get kicked square in the crotch. But this guy wasn't cat calling. He wasn't eyeing me like a death row inmate. His gaze held a hunger… a thirst for something. It made my skin crawl. For a block or so, he'd stayed back a good thirty feet, but now he was closing in. I picked up the pace, nervously fingering my cigarette. The urge to check behind me, no matter how much the cliché dictated that it would be my undoing, won out. One casual glimpse over the shoulder was all I needed. I took it.
And ran smack into Will and Grace.
"Oof! Sorry!" Grace was tallish, long shiny hair, great legs.
Will, on the other hand, was on the shorter side, his curly blonde hair somewhat askew. "We didn't mean to… hey, you're that blackjack dealer. Look, I didn't know she wasn't twenty-one."
I took a drag. "I'm not tailing you."
He straightened up. "Of course. That thing I said before… was a joke."
"You guys have a swell night." I moved past them to cut through the parking lot of the Premium Suites Motel, which didn't offer suites, nor was it premium. Just another one of life's wacky little ironies.
Like the one where I finally breathed a sigh of relief before finding myself face to face with Creepo Follower Guy.
"Nice night for a walk," he hissed.
Who the hell hisses when they talk other than villains in bad horror movies? "Yeah. Sure." I tried to push past him, but he latched his hand to my arm. "Look, pal, I'm not really in the mood for bullshit right now."
"That's good. I'm not, either." His eyes grew wide as his face changed into… something that looked like a bad Botox experiment. With massive teeth.
I gave him a solid shove, pushing him back at few feet. It seemed to surprise him.
What surprised me was Will and Grace running up on us like they were ready to tussle in a three piece suit and heels.
"Thirsty?" Will pulled a flask from his pocket and flung the contents all over the Creep.
A smell immediately permeated the air. Scotch. I wasn't sure what that was supposed to accomplish.
"Andrew!" Grace grabbed the flask out of Will's—er, Andrew's hand.
"I forgot! It was a long flight."
"So where'd you put the Holy Water?"
"You know, Dawn, I'm not the only one with a job here. If you weren't so engrossed in your Sumarian demon journals, maybe you'd think about bringing something."
Working in Atlantic City, I hear plenty of outrageous stuff, but this was just weird. I wanted to ask if they were crazy religious, but there was a hand grabbing at my shoulder. Jesus Christ, this guy wasn't gonna give up.
"Hey! Lay off, asshole!" I chucked my lit cigarette at him, not considering the combustible nature of 80 proof liquor.
He went up in flames, screaming, reaching for me.
Grace AKA Dawn was by my side in a second, pulling me away from the burning man. Before I had a chance to consider whether I should run or try to kick some ass, the guy exploded into a pile of dust.
Back at Westlake (see: all girls academies designed to securely reassure one's sexuality), I quickly learned that, while people pretend they're being themselves and constantly offer reasons why you should trust them because they are, in fact, giving you an honest glimpse at who they are; most of the time they're bullshitting. The hot girl drowning her lips in gloss is certainly a bitch just like her novelty baby-tee might announce, but she's definitely not as stupid as she wants everyone to believe. Any guy with a sweet face offering study help at the library will almost always try to cop a feel once you get to the private reading rooms. And that babysitter who said you'd always be friends and that she'd always listen to any problem you had was probably telling what she thought was the truth, but in the end, she'll end up busy with her own big bad life in the big bad city and eventually never return any phone call or e-mail you might drop her way.
That's humans for you.
Apparently, though, demons are different. That guy with the pointy teeth and the screwy face who, for lack of a better comparison, looked like a vampire? Was a vampire.
Yeah, it sounded weird to me, at first, too. And that was the short version.
"… and thus began the global mobilization of the Slayers of the Vampyres."
Dawn took yet another sip of her orange soda. She hadn't said a word since Andrew began his lengthy lecture on the Slayers of the Vam-py-res. Yeah, I didn't know it was a three-syllable word, either.
Andrew slid his metal pointer along the dry erase board. It was full of hand-drawn demons, sloppy charts of paranormal activities, and a picture of a blonde girl holding what I first mistook for something of a sexual nature, but it turned out it was just a wooden stake. You know, for the Vampyres.
With a clink, the soda can rested on the cheap formica counter top of my crappy motel room. I wasn't quite sure what to make of Dawn.
Actually, I wasn't able to stop looking at her legs and her shiny hair (oh, fine, and all the stuff in between) to really evaluate what she was putting out. Er, I mean, putting out there. As in, out there for people to see.
"And… so… I think that's all I have for you at the moment, Ms. Johannsen." He dug through his leather satchel, sorting through books and file folders. A copy of Lost in Translation slipped out of the bag and landed on the floor. "Oops. That's just… for my leisure time."
Dawn picked up the DVD and shoved it into his hand. "He's a lame-o loser who doesn't listen and thought we were coming to get Scarlett Johannsen."
"Hey! I am not lame-o! And it wouldn't be our first celebrity slayer." Andrew held the movie to his chest. "Dakota Fanning finds time to fight evil and still dazzle us with her on-screen talents."
"You're so giving away the kind of information that is top secret."
"Oh, please. The fact that her slayer genes were decelerating her aging process would have given her up, eventually."
There was the ping of a Sunkist can against forehead and Andrew was suddenly quiet. Kind of.
"Ow… I'm going back to the car."
"It's parked at the casino."
"Then I'm going to the cab that's taking me to the car." He grabbed his briefcase and huffed out the door.
"Sorry, he's… challenged."
With all the ruckus, I hadn't even realized I was still wearing my cheesy dealer's getup and suddenly felt very self conscious.
I tugged at my bowtie. "Yeah, well… you should see the weirdos I work with."
"His office has a life-sized Han Solo in carbonite. Though, I might have just outed myself as a geek for knowing that it's carbonite."
She was funny. Which made the self conscious aspect even worse. Hot girls are one thing. Hot girls with wit? Something else, entirely.
"It's okay. We all know it's carbonite." The bowtie landed on the counter. I felt better now that I looked a little less like Charlie Chaplin. "So, what's your take on this Slayer thing? Are you one, too?"
"Nope. My sister is, though. She was the only one for a while. Got a really big head about it but we eventually deflated it back down to about regular size. She's still a little top heavy, but manages to get through most days without toppling over."
"You don't get along?"
She shrugged. "We do. Just sister stuff, I guess. Plus, her being a superhero does give her a superhero complex and makes her think she, like, knows all about what's best for humanity. She was actually right a couple times."
"Huh. I never had a sister. Just a self-righteous baby sitter who made promises she never kept."
"That's kind of like having one."
"Well, there you go."
We both leaned against the counter, letting the lull in conversation overtake the room as it pulsated with "awkward!"
I scrambled for a continuance in conversation. "So… if you're not a slayer, then what do you do?"
"Oh! I watch!"
"You… watch slayers?" From what Andrew told me, slayers were all girls. Athletic, super powered girls. So watching them would not be the worst gig of all time.
"Yes. Well, not, like, in a pervy way."
Damn. "No… oh, of course not. That would be… weird."
"I'm a Watcher. Capital W. We're trained to train the slayers. Research, demon lore, languages, stuff like that."
Okay, remember the thing about hot plus witty being something else, entirely? Add brains to that and you're going to find Charlotte Johannsen in a dopey incoherent daze on the floor.
"So, you… read a lot, then?" Good one, Char. Next ask if she drinks water and eats food regularly, too.
Dawn nodded. "Plus weapons, fighting skills, strategies. I'm like a one stop shop." Not the mental image I needed right then. "I'm your one stop shop, actually."
Definitely NOT the image I needed if I was going to stay upright and able to concentrate. "I'm sorry, what?"
"I'm your watcher."
"You're here to… watch me?"
"But not in a pervy way."
A car horn blared from the parking lot. "That's Andrew." She jotted down a phone number on the motel notepad. "I'll be back tomorrow. Be sure to get some sleep."
There wasn't time to question it or refuse or blink.
She disappeared out the door. After a moment, she was back. "And it's only pervy if they don't know you."
There was a smirk, a flash of shiny hair, and the sound of the door latching shut.
Tomorrow couldn't come soon enough.