With a flick of her glow-in-the dark fingernails, Heather Winslow dealt a ghostly playing card, spinning out luck. It sliced through the twilight of the casino, leaving an evanescent trail as fleeting as good fortune. What appeared to be fortuitous, in the form of a ten of clubs, settled on the velvet table in front of chair seven. The black-light bumper brightened the card’s greenish radiance.
            “Ha! Beat that w-witch!” the drunk customer slurred triumphantly. The portly brute pointed at his radiant cards, then he rudely exhaled smoke in her face. “I would like to see this chick’s bust.”
            Dick ‘the Dude’ was typical of the nastiest guests, blaming, cursing and blowing smoke. She thought of him as a brute. He had doubled down on a pair of aces. Making a big deal over digging out black chips from his hunting vest, he bet his entire stash. The $500 cheques sat atop the illuminated betting circle in two tall stacks like the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. The ten had given him twenty-one, a nice second hand to go along with his first, a twenty.
            Heather glared, wishing looks could kill. Or better, she thought, her look could make him lose it all. She was silently thankful for her good luck and prayed her fortune continued its winning ways. Beating rude customers was the best way for a dealer to shed them. The Suits were renowned for reading minds and ignoring improprieties when big money played.            
            She shifted uncomfortably, feeling pricked as though the entire casino were sharply watching her. Large bets summoned scrutiny  from the Eye in the Sky. Security cameras and black lights hung concealed within the heavily brocaded awning overhead, giving the Twilight Paradise Tahoe gambling floor an intimate feel.
            Because she was pretty—some had proclaimed beautiful to flatter her—guys had always ‘checked out’ Heather Winslow. Most assumed she was a typical, blue-eyed, blond and tanned Californian. She was actually from northern Nevada. Having grown up in a resort town, she was accustomed to eyeballing, especially when she was doing her best Barbie imitation. Along with the glow-in-the-dark effects, make-up was a great disguise. Hardly anyone recognized her away from the casino. It was safer that way. She had been blamed, angrily cursed and threatened often in the five months since she began working at the Twilight Paradise.
            “Her luck’ll change. You’ll see. Nobody wins all the time,” the obnoxious brute proclaimed.
             “If you’re really interested in winning, maybe you should try table hopping,” she suggested, hoping he might take the hint.
            “Why the hell for?” the rude brute stammered. As if he were inhaling it, Dick drank deeply of a beer. It was a chaser to the shot of Wild Turkey that had fortified this gamble and steadied his hand. Ten out of ten casinos would recommend such an action.
            “A Michigan State study revealed that by playing two losing games there is a ratcheting effect that enables players to win.”
            “So what are you trying to say?”
            “They did this despite playing in two games where the odds were stacked against them. They dubbed it Parrondo’s Paradox.”
            “Sounds like BS,”  Dick, the tasteless brute, burped.
            Ignoring him, she checked with the distinguished gentleman sitting in the seven spot. She spared a smile for Mr. P, a self-proclaimed admirer and glutton for punishment. On more than one occasion, she had delicately informed him she was absolutely—wholeheartedly, body and soul—in love with Skyler Everhart, and not looking for a sugar daddy.
            Mr. P laid his hand flat, standing pat. He looked at her for a long second, then he smiled as if he knew what she had for a hand. “I suggest you do as your friend advised. It is foolish to tempt fate and risky to flirt with Lady Luck.”
            “Why’s that?”
            “The beauteous Heather of Tahoe is the queen of blackjack here, at the Twilight Paradise, and perhaps all of Nevada. Dare I say, the world. She has the good fortune of three, a very lucky number.”
            “You’ll make me blush,” she replied. By his comments, she knew he had been talking to her sister. Who else knew about the luck of three? Amber’s tongue wagged when she had been imbibing. She seemed to have the uncanny knack of saying something inappropriate, or being at the wrong place at a bad time.
             She flipped over her hole card, then gave herself the two of hearts to go along with the three of diamonds and two of clubs. She dealt another two, the spade, her hand adding up to nine.
            “Come on ten spot!”
            If she drew a ten, she would have to stand. Dick would win both hands. She inwardly groaned. That would encourage the insufferable brute to stay longer. Just lose and go home, Heather wished.  She  played another two, giving her all four suits and the unimpressive total of eleven. With a face card or any ten, she would beat him twice over.
            “Aw, for Christ’s sake. No ten. No ten!” the brute chanted.
            “I sense something familiar happening,” Mr. P said dryly.
            Heather paused, letting a little drama build while she glanced up. The crowd was large for late October, with the tourist season long over and locals’ summer waning. She was pleased to find security guards close by, watching along with the Suits.
            Her brutish player should have been eighty-sixed long ago, but he had already lost thirty grand. The pit bosses’ bonuses were calculated from the table winnings, encouraging them to catch cheaters, bring out new cards, and switch dealers whenever there was a run on the House Harry Coxswain loved having Heather deal in his pit.
            She didn’t get a ten spot with her sixth card, dealing a three.
            “Fourteen! Ha! Bust baby!”
            With the stakes high, the tension was almost unbearable. Heather gave herself another card—the ace of hearts. She cleared her throat, finding it a little difficult to breathe. The ace of diamonds made eight cards and sixteen. She wasn’t allowed to stand on sixteen, only seventeen and higher.
            Her current situation was a perfect example for her dissertation. After getting her degrees, she had taken a year off from the University of Reno-Nevada to get an idea for an organizational behavior study. Did the customers’ blaming affect the dealers? If casinos, like the Paradise, focused on making the employees feel like winners, did they win more? Her long term plan was to eventually work in career counseling, which meant she had to get her doctorate. Even having a masters meant little when trying to get a job or hang your own shingle. She wanted to apply Dr. Carl Rogers methods and beliefs that people inherently wanted to do a good job. He had expanded upon Mazlow’s ideas of satisfying basic needs to obtain a happier and better performing employee. If you worried less about health and home, you could do an even better job.
            “Go big! Go little, I don’t care! Just go, w-witch!”
            “They are playing your song,” Mr. P chuckled.
             Heather wouldn’t have noticed the music, if he hadn’t mentioned it. The intercom system softly played The Purple People Eater. Like all dealers, she was in uniform, decked out in a dark lavender velour vest and bow tie.
            As Heather dealt the next card, she sensed a commotion, but she couldn’t look away, riveted by her luck. The appearance of the five of diamonds threw her table into a state of shock. She fought to hide her smile, but she was full of an overwhelming sense of triumph.
            “A nine card twenty-one. Impressive. Do you realize, Dick, if you had not doubled down, you would have had twenty, and she would have gotten the ten of clubs, giving her a plain old four card seventeen?” Mr. P asked.
            Heather believed in miracles. Whether they seemed great or small, they happened every day, mostly in unexpected ways.
            Shouting profanities, the drunken brute lunged across the table. Dick seized her by the throat and clamped down, choking her with both hands. He shook her once, violently hard, shocking her blind as he tried to snap her neck. Then it suddenly lessened, as if he had been held back at the last instant.
            When she could see again, she stared dully through a red haze into the eyes of murderous hate. She panicked, because she saw he was drunk enough to kill her. Mr. P and others wrestled with the brute, barely keeping her alive by prying at his arms.
            She desperately jabbed for his eyes. Her nails fell short, tearing into his cheeks. The sight of blood made matters worse, sickening her and adding to her lightheadedness. She tried to think critically, but her body’s fight and flight mechanism overwhelmed her.
             The table protected him from taking a knee in the testicles. She tried falling back, but he had her like a puppet in a vise grip. Desperation assailed her. She was going to die. Oh, Skyler. I love you. Mom . . . .
            Out of the corner of her eye, she saw something blur. The overhead awning swept down. Its frame struck the brute, catching Dick in the temple. Stunned stupid, he released her.
            Seeing red with black bubbling spots, Heather fell back, gasping for breath. A miracle!
            Somebody strong caught her, grunting before gently lowering her to the floor. “Relax. I have you” the man said, sounding pained. “Look out!”
            Heather glanced up, seeing a thrown playing card skip off the murderous brute’s brow. It sliced flesh and bled into his eye, making him pause.
            Mr. DeVault quickly unhanded her and surged to his feet. Dick had recovered, climbing over the table. The casino manager lashed out. “Back, cur!”  Heather didn’t see the blow, but her attacker reeled back into the arms of two security guards. “Take him outside! County deputies will be waiting,” DeVault commanded.
            What seemed to have taken an eternity had really happened in a flash, leaving Heather feeling disjointed. Even so, she managed to stand on her own. She had survived worse. “Thank you . . . Mr. DeVault.”
            “Are you hurt? Or just shaken?” DeVault asked.
            The lights brightened to the hue of a sunset blazing across golden clouds, giving her a clear view of the casino manager. Even grimacing, Dirk DeVault was terminally handsome, tall, dark, and hungrily lean. His black hair was slicked back close to his head like a skullcap. In stark contrast to his indoor pallor, his dark locks and eyes stood out. His flesh seemed even whiter against an immaculate ebony Armani, a double-breasted suit veined with golden pinstripes.
            “I think I’m okay, Mr. DeVault,” she replied. She touched her grandmother’s crucifix nestled under her shirt, giving thanks that she was alive.
            The casino manager  peered into her eyes. The intensity of his black stare made her feel as though he were excavating secrets. The gold highlights in his eyes swirled, adding to her dizziness. She had heard he was incredibly effective at catching cheats. The way he finished people’s sentences and knew their thoughts unsettled both the employees and the guests, until he smiled. Then they were all charmed out of their undies. “Yes, I believe you are, but no, I don’t have x-ray eyes.”
            He had answered her question before she could utter it. Heather felt a little wobbly and weak-kneed. She wished Skyler was here to evaluate her condition and comfort her.
            “But I have a gift for sensing someone’s health. Regardless, the paramedics have been called and should be here soon. Harry, close this table,” he sharply ordered the pit boss, then he faced the customers. “I apologize for this happening. Thank you for your assistance. You deserve a reward. See to it.” For emphasis, DeVault pointed a playing card at Coxswain.  The vulturine pit boss frowned, then he handled it, matching their bets with house money on wins for the next five hands at a more comfortable table.
            Where had Harry Coxswain been? Heather wondered.
            “You are a very lucky lady.”
            She laughed harshly. “I don’t feel lucky.”
            “I can imagine, but you are. Can you walk on your own, or do you need a hand?” DeVault asked, looking pained.
            “I can walk,” she replied. She let go of the table, not realizing until now that she had been leaning on it. “What about you? Are you all right?” she asked, seeing that he cradled a sore right hand.
            “Ahem. Well, I should know better than to strike a customer, but I was . . . enraged. Shall we go to the sorting room? It would be a less public place for the paramedics to speak with you,” he said, ushering her ahead with his good hand.
            “You’re right. Thank you,” Heather said. Now that it was over, she was having trouble thinking straight. She could be calm during an emergency, but she broke down later. On the other hand, she had heard that Dirk DeVault’s charm weakened women’s wills. Young and old alike came back from their performance reviews, and even disciplinary meetings, absolutely giddy over the casino manager.
            As she left the pit, the dealers called over their shoulders to wish her a speedy return.
            Unlike most casinos, the Twilight Paradise Tahoe was user friendly and easy to navigate, set up like a wheel with the gaming floor in the center. No blinking signs or glaring mirrors distracted or confounded the guests. Comet trails in the black carpet led through curtained archways to different destinations. They followed the green one directly to the cashier’s cage.
            Customers parted, giving her plenty of room. She thought she must look frightful and wished they would dim the lighting again. With a lit cigarette,  DeVault pointed to an open door left of the cashier’s cage and the casino bank.
            The sorting room was unoccupied. At an empty table, she collapsed into a folding chair. With the peril past, her adrenaline had ebbed, leaving her exhausted.
            “The paramedics are on the way. They should be here any minute. How do you feel?” DeVault asked, studying her. His eyes were unlike anything she had seen before. Seeming unusually large, they were dark and swirled with flecks of gold. For some reason, the glittering shards made her think of pieces from a broken halo.
            Heather closed her eyes, but she could feel him watching her. She must look frazzled and ready to breakdown. “Shaky but I’ll live.”
            “You know, that awning couldn’t have broken at a better time.”
            “I believe in miracles,” she said as she rubbed her neck. It felt sore and bruised.
            “Do you now? That doesn’t sound like critical thought in action,” he replied. Absentmindedly, he spun a playing card on the tip of his finger.
            She was amazed and a little mesmerized. “Many wonderful and totally unexpected things have happened in my life.”
            “A casual stroll through a lunatic asylum proves that faith doesn’t prove anything.”
            “Nietzsche also said that, ‘if a man really holds a strong faith he can indulge in the luxury of skepticism’. I can lay out the argument if you’re bored some time.” Despite having been attacked before, she had always been rescued. Sometimes it seemed to defy critical thought.  The miracles had encouraged her to help others, in some way passing it on.
            “I would be fascinated,” he replied.
            She thought he was making fun of her. “What happened to security? And Harry?”
            “They were in the process of responding to an attack by the the Crazed Clipper.”
            “Another lunatic,” Heather said. She had heard of the idiot who suddenly popped up and snipped women’s long hair. It wasn’t nicknamed Flake Tahoe because of its snowfall. Such weirdoes were the reason she had taken two self-defense courses.
            “Fortunately, I was moving closer to see what your final draw would be. A nine card twenty-one. Amazing, especially on a single deck. That’s as good as it gets.”
            “It seemed to take forever.”
            “Time is distorted in the moments surrounding death.”
            It seemed an odd statement. She wondered how he knew.
            “Heather!” Amber cried as she rushed into the room. Her skimpy black cocktail outfit was designed to stop traffic. Along with her beauty it created wrecks. Wearing stiletto heels, her younger red-headed sister craved attention and loved showing off. “I heard what happened. Are you all right?”
            “Yes.” She stood up to hug her sister, showing her she wasn’t severely injured. “Gently now. My neck is sore.”
            “Should you be standing? You are going to be bruised, sis.” Amber stammered. Her sister gently palpated her neck.
            “I hope that’s all. I bet Skyler felt it when I was attacked. I should call him immediately.”
            Amber looked to DeVault, explaining for her. “My sister feels she is connected to her soul mate.”
            “Ah, I see. So he knows when something happens to you?”  DeVault asked, taking it all seriously.
            “Yes. Our souls are intertwined, so we are one with each other even when we are apart.”
            “Interesting. You said Skyler. As in Skyler Everhart, the sculptor?” he asked. Heather nodded. “I have been tempted to buy the tumbling dice with the seven up.”
            “Go for it,” she encouraged. They could use the money, and selling a piece of art always encouraged Skyler to create more.
            DeVault held up a finger to stop her and answered his cell phone. “It’s for you.”
            Heather accepted it, knowing who it must be. “Hello, my love.”
            “Heather, are you all right?” asked a concerned, familiar and loving voice.
            “Skyler! I was just talking about you. Yes, I’m okay, my love,” she said, breaking into a smile. “See!” she whispered triumphantly to her sister.
            “She doesn’t like to win at all, does she?” DeVault asked quietly. Amber snorted unladylike. Refusing to take the bait, Heather ignored it.
            “I had the awful feeling you were in trouble. You did say you were only okay, ” Skyler said. She loved his perceptiveness. Just hearing his voice relaxed her.
            “A customer grabbed me by the throat.”
            “My God! Are you sure you’re all right?”
            “I was lucky, thank the Divine. The awning over the table broke away and hit him, then the casino manager smacked him.”
            “You are truly blest, my love.”
            “Yes, I am, because I met you,” she replied. Six years ago, an assault had brought her a knight in shining honor, blessing her with Skyler. What might this bring?
            “It also sounds like I owe the casino manager.”
            “We do. He’s interested in your tumbling dice sculpture. You could make him a deal,” Heather suggested.
            “I’ll do it.”
            A short, stocky and uniformed man peered into the room. He was accompanied by a man twice his height but similar in build to a big bear. “Anyone need medical assistance?”
            Amber waved them in. She knew Chad and Dan, just as Heather did, because Skyler was involved with emergency care.
            “Honey, the ambulance racers are here. I gotta go.”
            “I’m coming to get you. See you soon.”
            Through Skyler, she had learned that they asked patients questions to ascertain their level of consciousness. They took her vitals and palpated her body from head to toe, looking for injuries. She hadn’t lost consciousness. She could sense her fingers and toes, and when they pressed on her spine, she felt fine. Although Chad didn’t think an ambulance ride was necessary, he recommended precautionary x-rays.
            She had recently had a mammogram and wasn’t eager to endure more tests. The last had led to a biopsy. She wouldn’t feel at ease until she knew she was healthy.
            During the examination, DeVault stayed nearby. To pass the time, he played solitaire. He riffled ferociously through the placards, dealing quickly at first as if he were expecting to lose. She was surprised by his intensity. Little by little, the casino manager slowed down as he finished a game, placing the last of the cards.
            In disbelief, he stared at them, then he double-checked the layout. He seemed so amazed she wondered if he had ever won a game before. When he looked up, he appeared awed by her, staring as if she were the reason he had been victorious. 
            “May I use your phone?”
            He said nothing as if he were caught dumbfounded, but he finally handed her his cell phone. She called her love to have him meet her near the entrance to Human Resources.
            Like a shadow, DeVault followed her. He waited outside the locker room, giving her five minutes, then he would send someone to check on her. He professed that his only interest was in her health. “We can ill afford to lose your luck, Heather.”    
            While she waited outside near security, DeVault stayed with her. “I hear you are having medical tests done.”
            “Yes,” she replied, surprised. How did he know?  Her sister and her loose lips made her growl. Amber had uncommonly bad judgment. “I am praying for good news.”
            “I never found prayer helpful,” he said. His dismissive manner was disconcerting.
            “I’ll bet a lot of gamblers feel that way. We don’t always know our own good. I find we are more likely to be aware of miracles during disasters than good times.”
            A ragged figure shuffled down the alley, causing DeVault to scowl. “Got any spare change?” asked the homeless man. He moved closer, his hand out. “I’m so hungry.”
            “Go away!” DeVault commanded. He flicked a card. It sliced through the air and bounced off the ragged man’s forehead.
            At the command, Heather had jumped and almost ran away. The panhandler immediately turned around to depart. Her heart went out to him. “Wait!” she cried, digging into her purse. The man continued on. “Answer a question for me, and I’ll give you enough for a hot meal.”
            He paused, then he slowly turned toward them. His expression changed, despair replaced by hope.
            “Heather, please, do not encourage him,” DeVault said. As the beggar approached, the casino manager took a step back as if he were afraid he would catch the man’s destitution.
            “Humor me. We both know the state could use more gambling addiction clinics, and the world would benefit from a little kindness. Sir, how did you end up out here?”
            “I lost my job, and my wife threw me out,” he mumbled, embarrassed.
            “Why did you lose your job? Were you drinking?”
            “No. Gambling. I like to throw dice,” he said with a sad smile. His teeth were dark-brown and fuzzy, tobacco stained. Underneath his ratty jacket, he wore a gasoline attendant’s shirt bearing his name: Artie.
            “Do you ever hit her?” she asked, certain she would see his lie.
            “Never. I loved her. I . . . just loved gambling more. That’s all.”
            “Artie, if I give you five dollars, are you going to gamble it away?” she asked.
            “Of course he is. You can see it in his eyes,” DeVault said.
            “Then here’s ten,” Heather said, giving him a bill. “Bet five and use the rest to eat. Promise?”
            “Yes! Yes! Oh, thank you beautiful lady. Wish me luck!” he cried. He gently took the money from her hand, kissed it, and then skipped out of the alley.
            “Good luck, Artie!”
            DeVault looked as if he were going to chastise her, then said, “When you wish people good luck, does it come true? Are they luckier?”
            She thought it was a strange question. “I would like to think I positively influence people, but I don’t really know. Skyler thinks so,” she replied, smiling. “I have heard from friends that I bring them luck. Except for Amber. No amount of luck will save you if you’re always making poor decisions.”
            When Skyler pulled his Jeep to the curb, she ran to him, throwing herself into his arms. He smelled of wood smoke and felt wonderful, strong and vibrant. This was home. She kissed him, drawing on his love for her. Everything felt all right again, except she could sense DeVault’s harah stare boring into her back.
            “It’s going to be all right,” he assured her.
            “Skyler, this is Mr. Dirk DeVault, the casino manager.”
            “Your savior?” Skyler asked archly.  She sensed his scorn, but then, he disliked casino executives and managers, likening many of them to vampires. Despite this, he held out a hand in greeting.
            “Hardly,” DeVault chuckled, surprised and bemused. His smile was hampered by pain. “Pardon me if I don’t shake hands. When I punched the drunken brute, something I would like to do more often to brutish guests, I injured my hand. At least I can say I was just doing my job. Heather is a very fortunate lady. We don’t want anything to change her luck. Please, call when you know something.”
            “Thanks for your help, Mr. DeVault. You are very kind” her beau replied.
            “Never. Regardless, I don’t expect to see you at work tomorrow,” DeVault said, waggling a figure at her. “Give yourself time to heal.”
            Skyler opened the door for her and helped her inside. She moved woodenly, her neck stiffening. As he walked around, he stopped to talk with DeVault. “Heather tells me you’re interested in The Tumbling Dice.” The casino manager nodded. “Think about it and make me an offer.”
            “Are they lucky? Did Heather help you any?”
            “She helped paint the pips and varnish them.”
            “Excellent! I will ponder it and let you know. Good night.”
            Skyler waved and climbed inside. After buckling up, he said, “I wish you would quit working here. Casinos, especially this one, give me the creeps. They’re being kind because they don’t want you to sue them.”
            “Why would I sue?”
            “Because they didn’t eighty-six your assailant earlier, like they should have to protect you. That’s negligence. The Paradise is just another organization of corporate bloodsuckers feeding off people, sucking the money and life out of them. It wouldn’t be the first casino to be run by vampires.”
            “Vampires! You can’t be serious. And how can you say that?! Mr. DeVault was very helpful. Everyone at the Paradise has been wonderful to me. People have fun there and enjoy working there.”
            “Heather, I love you because you believe in the best of people. I see them at their worst, the effects and results of losing it all. Don’t you realize you win a lot of money for them? That’s probably why DeVault acted concerned about your luck. Besides, isn’t he the guy you told me about? The one that women swoon over?”
            “Yes,” she replied. She disliked where this was heading.
            “Frankly, I don’t like the way he looks at you, like you’re his property or something.”
            “Skyler! Rest easy. I love you. I am going to marry you, have our kids, and enjoy the rest of my life with Lake Tahoe’s most renowned sculptor. What’s wrong?”
“He gives me the chills. I’ve shaken hands with warmer corpses.”
As they pulled away, Heather waved to DeVault. With a card in his hand, his wave was perfunctory, his attention elsewhere. His glare stared beyond her to Skyler.
She shivered. If looks could kill, her fiance´ would be dead.