The casino smelt of second-hand smoke and first-class alcohol, a rather enjoyable though strange blend that somehow worked.  Then the stale must of gambling—a combination of tension, fear, joy, and sheer luck—merged with this other combination to create a rather startling mixture that heightened the senses and enlightened the mind to its surroundings.

Jack Clark knew he was tired as he stepped down from the bar.  He had downed his third martini of the night, and as soon as he'd finished it he knew he'd gone to far.  He wasn't drunk, and he rarely let himself get that way, especially not in the field.  His senses immediately picked up the first sign of compliance, and they revolted.

Jack stared out across the main floor.  Off to his left, a couple was leaving one of the casino's salles privées, the exclusive private gambling rooms for patrons with large wallets.  He strolled across the main section, passing the roulette tables and chemin-du-fer tables, where large groups had gathered to watch the lucky ones get luckier or loose big.

Approaching the first salle privée, he nodded at the attendant by the door, who quickly opened it and allowed Mr. Clark through.  He smiled to himself.  All the big winners could come and go through the private rooms as they pleased, and Jack's two days at the casino had been good enough for him to be admitted.

Inside the room, he moved past a waiter carrying a tray of drinks and headed over to the table, where several other patrons—most with their significant other or at least a friend to talk to—had assembled.

Then, Jack saw him.

Mr. Max Kreigler stood across the room, behind the croupier on his raised stool, watching the high-priced blackjack game as it ensued.  Beside him was his bodyguard Victor Scarpine, the lanky Frenchman who was never too far away from his boss.  And, as always, on his arm was the lovely Bianca LaNeige.

Jack smiled at the tall, rather handsome man across the room.  Now he knew this game was high-stakes.  It wasn't every day that the owner of the casino came to the main floor just to watch a match.

At the head of the blackjack table, right in front of Kreigler, was Monsieur Jacques White, the French industrialist from Paris.  His wife was in the crowd somewhere, Jack knew; he'd seen her already that evening.  He'd been holding the shoe for several hands now, Jack could see, from the piles of mille euro plaques around him.  They were in the middle of a hand right now, and, judging by the beads of perspiration dotting White's forehead, it was a rather tense game.

To his left, the American steel baron, Charles Dupont, had busted, or gone over the limit, already in the hand.  Dupont, like White, was vacationing in Cassais along with his wife.  Jack doubted very much that they had any connection to the original Dupont family, save their namesake.  They were pleasant enough, but naïve and rather green around the edges.

Beside Dupont was the lovely widow of an Italian millionaire, a Ms. Isabella Fidella, a popular topic of gossip around the place, Jack had gleaned, from listening at the bars and restaurants around the place.  She had come to Cassais for a vacation with her "associate," a handsome former model for her late husband's fashion company.  She had been with this gentleman for a few months now, despite the fact that her husband had died less than six months before.  There were even more spiteful rumors that the woman had had her husband killed to collect his fortune and marry her little aficionado, but Jack put little belief in these dirty little stories.  He didn't rely on gossip as any kind of fact, especially in his line of work.

Beside Ms. Fidella, across the table from White, was the German banker Gupta, one of the richest men in the room, his own wealth rivaling that of Kreigler's.  His engorged size prevented him from sitting right up at the table; his chair was moved back to provide room for his stomach.  The glare of the lights off his greasy bald head was bearable so long as you didn't look directly into it.

To Gupta's left was Dupont's wife, the lovely Mrs. Dupont, who had matured past her years of beauty a long time beforehand.  She wore an expensive-looking black sequin dress that had no doubt been bought by Mr. Dupont at the little French boutique down the street a few days before.

On her left was the Englishman from Jamaica, Greggory, who, it was said, had made his fortune in sugar cane plantations near Kingston.  Rumor had it that he was here squandering his dying father's money; if it was true, judging by the reckless way the man was playing, he had very little regard for any human being, especially a dying father.

Jack smiled at the motley crew assembled in the casino's most expensive blackjack table.  These four men and two women were the best gamblers in Cassais, perhaps in the whole south of France, save Monte-Carlo.  They were the biggest winners, and, occasionally, the biggest losers as well.

Except for him.  On a good night, when he was giving it his best, Jack could be in White's spot at the table.  Tonight, Jack had finished making his rounds at the tables and getting his name "out there."  The casino security staff had been keeping an eye on Jack and all the money he had been collecting at the tables.  In fact, these past two days at the casino in Cassais given him an excellent chance to flaunt his skills, especially in front of the casino staff.  Just this evening alone he'd racked up a good hundred euros in roulette and chemin-du-fer alone; at the low-paying tables, of course.  He had collected a good ten thousand dollars at the high-paying blackjack tables in the salles privées.

Turning away momentarily from the mildly intriguing game, Jack looked up at the small, inconspicuous security camera in the corner of the vaulted ceiling.  He could see the little display light in the corner that would normally indicate that the camera was in operation.  To Jack, however, who knew better, he could tell the camera was just for show.  A ploy to catch thieves in the action.  Most people who try to rob casinos, especially one of these smaller but just as expensive ones, took their meticulous time and mind-numbing effort to "map out" the paths of the casino's security measures.  The security people here, Jack had learned, were two steps ahead.  The real cameras were hidden, at least to the naked eye.  But Jack could see that they were everywhere: in the top of one of the gilded portrait frames that hung on the wall; one hidden in the decorative hangings underneath the chandelier above the blackjack table.  They were everywhere and nearly invisible.  But not to Jack.

Kreigler and LaNeige were still watching the match when Jack turned back.  White had just cleaned up the pot again, boosting his earnings to several thousand euros strong.  He smiled. 

If they only knew.

The secret agent turned away from the blackjack table and headed for the exit.  Outside the salle priveé, Jack waved to one of the attendants, who moved over to him.  "Sir?"

"Have these cashed for me," Jack said, pulling the wad of hundred-euro plaques from his jacket pocket.  "Two hundred in cash, the rest in my account.  It's under the name Clark.  Jack Clark."  He handed the plaques to the attendant, who nodded. 

"Yes, Mr. Clark, right away," he replied in French, and hurried away.

Jack made his way to the front of the casino.  At the end line of salles privées, an empty ceiling-to-floor gilded portrait frame lead into the casino's fancy five-star restaurant, Centuries.  The dining area was private and inviting, especially to couples, with excellent food and an outstanding wine list,.  Tonight, the restaurant seemed relatively quiet; he contemplated stopping off for a nightcap, but decided against it.  He was still too close to a hangover for that.

At the front desk, Jack collected the cash and thanked the front cashier.  Turning back around for one quick glance, he saw Kreigler and LaNeige, flanked by Scarpine, exiting the private room and heading for the elevator beside the entrance to La Collina.  The game must've been over, or something more important had come up.

Jack turned and left le casino de Cassais, leaving through the front entrance to the circular entranceway, where he nodded at the concierge and headed across the street to his hotel.

Le Hotel de Roi was arguably the best hotel in Cassais.  The opulent building was one of the most spectacular in all of Cassais.  It was top five-star hotel, the biggest hotel in Cassais.  It was owned by Max Kreigler, like many of the other establishments in town.

Jack entered into the striking main foyer of the hotel.  Jack approached the attendant, a polite young girl with short brown hair and a pleasant smile.  She seemed to light up as Jack approached.

"Good evening, Mr. Clark," she said.  "How was your evening at the casino?"

Jack shrugged at the pleasant greeting.  "Fine, I suppose.  Quiet."

She nodded.  "Yes, I'm afraid it can be like that here during the week.  There'll be more people here this weekend.  The casino's our main attraction, believe it or not."

Jack nodded.  He noted the friendliness of the young desk attendant.  Besides being the most recommended hotel in Cassais, Le Roi was staffed by a group of young men and women whose main purpose in life, it seemed to Jack, was to make the guests at their hotel as comfortable and content as possible.

"Yes, I'm looking forward to the weekend, actually," Jack replied.  "I have the feeling something exciting is going to happen."  She smiled at what she thought was a joke.  "Now then, were there any messages left for me?"  Jack doubted that there were; any messages from the office would be directed to the private account on his laptop computer upstairs, and nobody in Cassais knew him well enough to leave a message at the hotel.

She turned and looked in the mailboxes behind her.  "No, I'm sorry, there aren't.  Were you expecting something?"

Jack shook his head.  "No, not really.  Thank you.  Have a nice evening."  He moved away from the front desk to the elevator on the left.

The attendant, confused but undeterred, smiled back.  "Yes, sir, you have a nice night as well."  Jack nodded and waved as the elevator doors closed.

He rode the lift to the third floor, where he got off and headed down the hall to his room.  He kept his eyes open for anything out of the ordinary as he headed for his room, but there was nothing.  It almost seemed as if there was nothing bad in this town; no crime, no drugs, no death, nobody with any kind of bad intentions.

If they only knew, he thought to himself.

Room 219 was at the end of the hall on the left.  Jack opened the door and went inside, flicking on the lights.  The suite was actually two rooms, a bedroom and a sitting room.  The sitting room was equipped with a mahogany desk, where Jack had set up his laptop computer.  Beside the desk, one of the room's two bay windows looked  out on the street between the casino and the hotel, where, as usual, nothing was happening, except the occasional car that idly went down the street, escaping the indisputable boredom that seemed to choke the life out of Cassais.

When the door was shut, Jack went over to the laptop computer he had set up on his desk and punched up the private database that had been set up by his employers for his work here.  Besides the fact that the computer had already been tempested and the database itself encrypted, each of the messages that were sent was also encrypted, so that no hacker would be able to read what had been sent to him.

The only new message was from Jack's cover agent in California, his trusted "butler" back at his Napa Valley mansion estate.  It read:

Sir—

Your previous message was received and acknowledged.  The additional ten thousand dollars has been sent to the account and will be ready for your use tomorrow.  Also, the car and other articles you sent for are on their way now, and your chauffer has been arranged for the weekend.  He will meet you tomorrow.  Everything is well here.  Hope all is well with you.  Please respond if anything further is needed.

Pindar

Jack nodded at the message, and then deleted it.  Everything was going well.  "Pindar" was actually a real man, the private owner of a wine vineyard in California's Napa Valley, named Charles Martin Pindar.  Like Jack, he was employed by the CIA's top-secret Alpha Force group, though he was used specifically as a cover agent.  Jack was familiar with the man, as he and Pindar had worked together on other assignments as well.

Jack's cover on this particular assignment was that of a wealthy wine vineyard heir, whose father, the former owner, had recently died and left everything to his son.  The inheritance, which also included the old man's fifty thousand dollar bank account, had been transferred to Jack, who was now in Cassais gambling that money away.

In reality, all the money was coming from a dummy account and the vineyard itself was barely worth twenty thousand.  The message's context had seemed simple enough, but it really had to do with the operation at hand.

Jack previous message to Pindar had indicated the man to send the additional twenty thousand dollars from the dummy account to his account at the bank in Cassais.  The "car and other articles" that were sent for included a brand-new BMW Z8 convertible, supplied also by the CIA, and a radio, which had also been supplied by the Alpha Force's technology branch.  His "chauffer" was an AF contact, a French secret agent who Jack had worked with before.  He and the equipment, like the message indicated, would be arriving tomorrow.

Or today, actually, Jack thought, seeing that it had just turned 2 a.m.  Which meant he had a big day ahead of him tomorrow.  Noting this, the secret agent pulled off his black Brioni dinner jacket and tossed it on his bed, followed by the chamois shoulder holster and 9mm Beretta he kept in it.  He yanked at his bow tie as he headed across the room and into the bathroom, where he finished undressing and climbed into the shower.  He let the warm jets of water relax away the day's tension, then washed again in cold water to keep the senses running at full speed.

When he had done that, he put his jacket and holster in the closet then turned off all the lights.  As streams of moonlight poured onto his bed through the curtains, Jack Clark climbed into bed and got himself comfortable. 

The last thing the secret agent felt before falling asleep was the hilt of his Beretta under the pillow.