Page 31 of Ford County

The success of the gambling gave Sidney a new purpose in life, but in the darkness of the night he still awoke and reached for Stella. The divorce decree had been signed by a judge. She was not coming back, but he reached anyway, still dreaming of the woman he would always love.

Stella was not suffering from loneliness. The news of an attractive new divorced woman in town spread quickly, and before long she found herself at a party where she met the infamous Bobby Carl Leach. Though she was somewhat older than most of the women he chased, he nonetheless found her attractive and sexy. He charmed her with his usual stream of compliments and seemed to hang on every word she uttered. They had dinner the following night and went to bed right after dessert. Though he was rough and vulgar, she found the experience exhilarating. It was so wonderfully different from the stoic and chilly copulating she had endured with Sidney.

Before long, Stella had a well-paying job as an assistant/ secretary for Mr. Leach, the latest in a long line of women who were added to the payroll for reasons other than their organizational skills. But if Mr. Leach expected her to do little more than answer the phone and strip on demand, he miscalculated badly. She quickly surveyed his empire and found little of interest. Timber, raw land, rental property, farm equipment, and low-budget motels were all as dull as Sidney, especially when weighed against the glitz, of a casino. She belonged at the Lucky Jack, and soon commandeered an office upstairs above the gaming floor, where Bobby Carl roamed in the late evenings, gin and tonic in hand, staring at the innumerable video cameras and counting his money. Her title shifted to that of director of operations, and she began planning an expansion of the dining area and maybe an indoor pool. She had lots of ideas, and Bobby Carl was pleased to have an easy bedmate who felt just as much passion for the business.

Back in Karraway, Sidney soon heard the rumors that his beloved Stella had taken up with that rogue Leach, and this further depressed him. It made him ill. He thought of murder, then suicide. He dreamed of ways to impress her, and to win her back. When he heard that she was running the casino, he stopped going. But he did not stop gambling. Instead, he broadened his game with long weekends at the casinos in Tunica County, on the Mississippi River. He won $14,000 in a marathon session at the Choctaw casino in Neshoba County, and was asked to leave the Grand Casino in Biloxi after wiping out two tables to the tune of $38,000. He took a week of vacation and went to Vegas, where he played at a different casino every four hours and left town with over $60,000 in winnings. He quit his job and spent two weeks in the Bahamas, raking in piles of $100 chips at every casino in Freeport and Nassau. He bought an RV and toured the country, prowling for any reservation with a casino. Of the dozen or so he found, all were glad to see him leave. Then he spent a month back in Vegas, studying at the private table of the world's greatest teacher, the man who'd written How to Break the Casino. The one-on-one tutorial cost Sidney $50,000, but it was worth every penny. His teacher convinced him he had the talent, the discipline, and the nerves to play blackjack professionally. Such praise was rarely given.

After four months, the Lucky Jack had settled nicely into the local scene. All opposition to it faded; the casino was obviously not going away. It became a popular meeting place for civic clubs, class reunions, bachelor parties, even a few weddings. Chief Larry began planning the construction of a Yazoo headquarters, and he was thrilled to see his tribe growing. Folks who'd been quite resistant to the suggestion of Indian ancestry now proudly claimed to be full-blooded Yazoo. Most wanted jobs, and when Chief broached the idea of sharing the profits in the form of monthly handouts, his tribe ballooned to over one hundred members.

Bobby Carl, of course, pocketed his share of the revenues, but he had yet to become greedy. Instead, and with Stella's prodding, he borrowed even more money to finance a golf course and a convention center. The bank was pleasantly astonished at the flow of cash, and quickly extended the credit. Six months after it opened, the Lucky Jack was $2 million in debt, and no one was worried.

During the twenty-six years she'd spent with Sidney, Stella had never left the country and had seen very little of the United States. His idea of a vacation had been a cheap rental at a beach in Florida, and never for more than five days. Her new man, though, loved boats and cruises, and because of this she cooked up the idea of a Valentine's cruise in the Caribbean for ten lucky couples. She advertised the competition, rigged the results, picked some of her new friends and a few of Bobby Carl's, then announced the winners in yet another large ad in the local newspapers. And away they went. Bobby Carl and Stella, a handful of casino executives (Chief Larry declined, much to their relief), and the ten lucky couples left Clanton in limos for the trip to the airport in Memphis. From there, they flew to Miami and boarded a ship with four thousand others for an intimate jaunt through the islands.

When they were out of the country, the Valentine's Day massacre began. Sidney entered the Lucky Jack on a busy night -  Stella had advertised all sorts of cheap romantic freebies, and the place was packed. He was Sidney, but he looked nothing like the Sidney last seen at the casino. His hair was long and stringy, darkly tinted, and hanging over his ears. He hadn't shaved in a month, and his beard was colored with the same cheap dye he'd used on his hair. He •wore large, round tortoiseshell glasses, also tinted, and his eyes •were hard to see. He wore a leather biker's jacket and jeans, and six of his fingers bore rings of various stones and metals. A baffling black beret covered most of his head and drooped to the left. For the benefit of the security boys upstairs at their monitors, the back of each hand was adorned with an obscene fake tattoo.

No one had ever seen this Sidney.

Of the twenty blackjack tables, only three catered to the high rollers. Their minimum bets were $100 a hand, and these tables generally saw little traffic. Sidney assumed a chair at one, tossed out a bundle of cash, and said, "Five thousand, in $100 chips." The dealer smiled as he took the cash and spread it across the table. A pit boss watched carefully over his shoulder. Stares and nods were exchanged around the pit, and the eyes upstairs came to life. There were two other gamblers at the table, and they hardly noticed. Both were drinking and were down to their last few chips.

Sidney played like an amateur and lost $2,000 in twenty minutes. The pit boss relaxed; nothing to worry about. "Do you have a club card?" he asked Sidney.

"No," came the curt reply. And don't offer me one. The other two men left the table, and Sidney spread out his operations. Playing three seats and betting $500 at each one, he quickly recaptured his $2,000 and added another $4,500 to his stack of chips. The pit boss paced a little and tried not to stare. The dealer shuffled the cards as a cocktail waitress brought a vodka and orange juice, a drink Sidney sipped but barely consumed. Playing four seats at $1,000 each, he broke even for the next fifteen minutes, then won six hands in a row, for a total of $24,000. The $100 chips were too numerous to move around quickly, so he said, "Let's switch to those purple ones." The table had only twenty of the $1,000 chips. The dealer was forced to call timeout as the pit boss sent for more money. "Would you like dinner?" he asked, somewhat nervously.

"Not hungry," Sidney said. "But I'll run to the men's room." When play resumed, Sidney, still alone at the table and attracting a few onlookers, played four seats at $2,000 each. He broke even for fifteen minutes, then glanced at the pit boss and abruptly asked, "Can I have another dealer?" "Certainly."