“As far as I’m concerned, I prefer silent vice to ostentatious virtue.”—Albert Einstein

In poker, they are called “tells.” Your nostrils flare every time you draw something off-suit. Your eyes dilate suddenly when you get a pair of aces. You touch your chips when sitting on an inside straight.

In the underage drinking game, tells are when you hide your drink upon approach, or push it across the table to your 21-year-old buddy, or when your eyes go Bambi soft when you present a fake ID to a vice cop, hand trembling.

And, unless the blood coursing through your veins is colder than the beer flowing from the tap, there is no way you can fool one of the officers from the Charleston Police Department vice squad.

Cpl. R. McBrayer, a native of Ohio, has been working vice for years. “Not every cop can do this kind of work,” he says, nodding to his two wingmen this night, “Red” and “Black” — who will remain unidentified because they work undercover on gambling and prostitution cases. “Sometimes, the people in the bar cheer when we leave, but it’s no big deal.”

These guys, like rounders Phil Hellmuth and Johnny Chan, can read an amateur like an open book. Take their recent Friday night trip to a downtown Mexican restaurant. Stealing in through the back door, dressed in street clothes, they look like a trio of older buddies out for a night of looking at the young ones.

And a meltingly soft brunette quickly catches their eye. Sitting behind an iridescent margarita, there’s probably a scotch older than her in the house.

The cops walk by, double back, confer with each other, and then pounce.

As soon as “Red” approaches the table, her date stiffens, sure he’s going to have to fend off another too-friendly suitor. Sure enough, Red asks Bambi for her digits — not her phone number, but her date of birth on her driver’s license.

Frozen until he produces a badge, Bambi then slides closer to her pretty boy. “I’ll need to see your ID, too,” he says to the boyfriend.

“You got your real ID?” asks Red, barely looking at the fake one she handed him.

A dance begins on Bambi’s face. First, it’s shock, then it’s fear, then more shock. Before her visage can morph one more time, she’s sitting with Red at the table across the aisle and Pretty Boy is trying to snow McBrayer into believing all he has is a Social Security card and a MasterCard.

No dice.

Red and McBrayer siphon off a few ounces of their drinks into plastic containers, in case the judge wants proof.

Bambi is back at her table, practically climbing into Pretty Boy’s shirt — which may have been the thinking behind the margaritas in the first place. She cries softly.

McBrayer steps in and calms her. “Relax,” he says, knowing she’s probably more afraid of her parents. “You’re not going to jail; it’s just a ticket.”

As he returns to his paperwork, the second part of the dance begins. Bambi and Pretty Boy, figuring this brush with the cops is only going to cost them money, start getting angry. Suddenly, the men who controlled their entire future a moment before are now vermin, scum.

Eyes roll, arms cross, cellphones are flipped out, and toes tap with an indignant ferocity as the process drags on. How could they do this? To me? Finals are over and I’m going home tomorrow, goddammit.

One $267 underage possession and one $242 false ID ticket later, McBrayer and his crew are out the back door, on to surprise a club they just left.

Later that night, they snare three underage college girls slugging down Cosmos in the darkened back room of a little bar squirreled away behind a closed restaurant.

“What gave us away?” asks the ringleader, who laughs when she’s told it was their age. “Girls,” she says with a snort, “we’ve just been read.”

“Yeah, no use getting an attitude,” says her girlfriend.

And then McBrayer’s posse is gone, off to ruin someone else’s night. Or protect them from over-drinking and smashing their car into a wall, or a bus filled with nuns and orphans.

Bill Davis gave up all his vices long ago (unless you count cheese, porn, and obscenities) and currently leads an admirable life of virtue, which is why he was chosen to ride along with the cops.

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