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Monday, March 21, 2011

Showdown at Club 42: Part II

<< Go back to Part I   [Stories Home]   Read on to Part III >>

Showdown at Club 42

II High Stakes

     I approached the gatekeeper again, but this time with my best insolent grin along with the preferred invitation. He gave it a once over, glared at me hard and with the puzzled expression of trying to do an incredibly difficult arithmetic problem in his head, which meant two plus two for him. He growled once, evidently coming up with three for the answer, and let me pass.
     The table was in a recessed alcove, and pretty well shielded from prying eyes and the sounds of the club. Five people sat at the table, including the dealer, a wiry man with a visor. A man stood near the dealer. He had an average face with brown hair and brown eyes. He had a neat suit, grey hat, and a red carnation in his button hole. I could tell from his jacket he had a gat under his arm. That made him the pit boss. Anything went wrong, he straightened out the trouble.
     "Call." Danny said after a hard moment of concentration, pushing some of his chips to the center of the table. The pile of chips in front of Danny didn't inspire confidence in his ability to play cards. The other players easily had twice as much in chips, if not more, and the wiry dealer had a large tray of chips in neat columns. Danny didn't come with a natural poker face, despite his efforts to stay cool. After just a minute of watching him, I knew his tell: he tapped his cards with his index finger. It could have been worse. He had the face of a teenager, and attempted to grow a Clark Gable moustache with his sparse, blond peach fuzz.
     One by one, the other players chimed in.
     "I'm out," said Big Nose, tossing his cards in with a beefy hand.
     "Show 'em to me," that was Toothpick, constantly twirling the toothpick in his mouth without touching it, who looked and sounded a lot like a weasel.
     The Quiet Man stacked his cards in front of him, and waved a hand over them. The man's poker face was granite. He could've had seven aces under those five cards, and I would never know it.
     Danny laid down his cards, a measly two pair, Jacks over Deuces. The kid must just liked to throw his money away.
     Toothpick showed his hand, a nice, neat straight, three through seven. Danny cursed, and slugged back his drink. Toothpick picked up his winnings with a little cackle, "Them's the breaks, Danny. Better luck next time."
     Now seemed like an ideal time before I watched the kid toss away all his money. "Mr. Kincaid, can I have a word with you?"
     "Who the hell are you?" he scrubbed the back of a hand against his mouth.
     "Name's Ben Slater."
     "What do you want?"
     "Like I said, just a word with you, in private."
     "Blow, will ya. I'm trying to play a game."
     I had just about reached the end of my patience, but a job was a job. I bent down close to him, so the others couldn't overhear, "Listen, kid," I inflated the irritation in my voice to downright malevolence, "I'm here to take you back to your mother. You can either come under your own power, or I drag you out. You might not be conscious for it."
     Danny's eyes went wide, and it looked like he was mouthing the word "Mother" then "Conscious".
     "Um, I think, I think I should be going," He announced to the table.
     "Smart move," I smiled, and patted him on the shoulder.
     "That's unfortunate, Mr. Kincaid. We so enjoy your patronage," Carnation's words felt slick and oily, like he had just gone in for some fresh grease on is tongue. "However, we will need you to pay back the credit you have used this evening."
     "Credit?" Danny stammered.
     Christ. The guy sunk himself into the hole.
     "How much?" I asked.
     "It seems," Carnation consulted a pad of paper from his jacket, "that Mr. Kincaid borrowed five thousand clams tonight."
     "Five Gs?" I couldn't keep the surprise out of my voice.
     "Seeing as Mr. Kincaid only has three fifty left in chips, he still owes the house four—"
     "I can add," I cut Carnation off, which soured his expression.
     I could get the money from his mother. She'd pay it, then they'd let the kid go. Simple as that. It shouldn't take me more than a couple hours to drive up there, explain the situation, and come back with the cash.
     "We'll get the money. It'll take a little time, but we could be back tonight."
     "That would be fine. However, we'd prefer to have Mr. Kincaid as our . . . guest . . . while you seek restitution."
     Something about how Carnation said that caught me. They knew Danny here, which meant he was a regular, and probably a regular at throwing away money, too. This was about more than the money. Ciro was a business man, and as long as he knew Danny would be back to pay him off, he shouldn't care about when he got the money. This was something else, maybe personal between Carnation and Danny.
     "Ben Slater," I held out my hand to Carnation.
     "Joey Silver." He shook my hand like he spoke, making me feel like I needed to wash the oil from my hand. Once I heard the name, the silver accents on his suit popped out at me: coat buttons, stick pin—unusual to show off in a speakeasy—belt buckle, and watch chain. I even saw a couple of silver finger rings with some sparkling, light colored stones I couldn't quite make out from a glance.
     "For your silver tongue, right?"
     He nodded, tugging the brim of his hat down slightly. From what I could tell, Joey wanted to do something to Danny. I didn't know what happened, and didn't care. If I left to get the money, I might come back to find that Danny had sunk further in debt, or had attempted to skip away without paying, probably to the tune of some bruises, a black eye, and maybe even broken limbs. Or they could just kill him outright, so I didn't dare leave him.
     If we explained the situation to Ciro, he might back off. Roughing up regulars wasn't called for. But that would mean I'd have to talk to Ciro, and I didn't want to do that. That left one option.
     "Fine. We'll win it back. Deal me in."
     Joey gave me an oily smile, and nodded his approval. The skinny dealer gathered up the cards, and shuffled them. Big Nose had enough, and cashed out, leaving me with Toothpick, the Quiet Man, and Danny. I had to put a hand on the kid as he was about to ante in.
     "You're out this hand, and every other until this is done."
     "Begging your pardon, Ben, but the kid's sitting at the table, so he's gotta play or make room for another player." Joey flashed a slick grin.
     I glanced about. "No one's waiting to get in, and there's still another seat open," I gestured next to Toothpick.
     "House rules."
     I could argue, but why? I turned back to Danny. This would just make it take a little longer. I leaned in close so only he could hear me, pitching the right kind of threat into my voice. "You ante, and fold. You don't even look at those cards, or I walk, and your legs get broken, if you're lucky. You might end up with cement shoes in the bay."
     Danny goggled at me, and gave a jerky nod.
     Joey didn't like the exchange, but signaled the dealer to start.
     Danny Kincaid was a rich kid, a beginner who might have thought he knew something about the game, but I had his tell quick. Toothpick and Quiet Man knew the game. Of the two, Quiet Man was better.
     I lost quite a few of the first hands, taking the stack in front of Danny down to just under two bills before I figured out Toothpick. His toothpick was the key. With winning hands he had a tendency to flip the toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other. An actual flip, too, not just move it over. Moving it over generally meant he wasn't sure, or he was bluffing. If he ever touched that toothpick with his hand, he was likely going to fold. Toothpick liked to ramble on, too, but it had no bearing on his game, just a quirk of the man.
     Quiet Man I just couldn't get a read on. I wasn't that good at reading card players, and Quiet Man was good, better than anyone I'd ever played against. I lost another fifty before finally giving up trying to get a read on him. It was time to start winning. Of course, during the whole time I lost, I had been working on my own strategy. Picking pockets for a career had given me the fast fingers and hands for cards, too. Having run Three-card Monty back in the day made it even easier. I had been neatly slipping cards away that I could use later. I couldn't take more than a hand's worth, one at a time from discards. I'd need to make sure I didn't reintroduce them too soon.
     I started winning back, slowly, taking more from Toothpick than from Quiet Man. I reduced Toothpick down to under a grand, while I had half again that in front of me. It was late, really late, but speakeasies catered to that, so the place still bustled, the phonograph in the main room piping away Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, and Hoagy Carmichael. Joey tried plying us all with drinks. Danny obliged; I had one in front of me, but didn't take from it. Toothpick started off fine, but as he began to lose, he drank more and more. Quiet Man didn't have anything.
     As we wore on, and the stacks in front got a little higher for me and Danny, I noticed something. Quiet Man wasn't going in for the kill on Toothpick. Neither did Toothpick stay in long when it was just the two of them. There were no games of trying to lure the other into bidding higher. With the three of us, sure, but not when I folded. I began looking for other tells, but didn't see any. They didn't tag team me. But they were working together.
     I shook out one of my Lucky's, and lit it with a match from the cigarette girl. I took my ease puffing away as I looked about the table; I included Joey in that look.
     He looked fine. Oily, but fine. He wasn't perturbed in the slightest that my stacks were climbing up to almost two grand. He knew something I didn't. He had his own ace in the hole. As part of the house, he shouldn't care one way or another who one this game unless there was more to this. Toothpick and Quiet Man didn't play against one another any more, just against me. They were working for Joey. It wasn't unusual to have someone in a card game working for the house, but more than one meant set up. The two guys didn't have to be able to telegraph their moves, either. It was enough that they pressed the other guy at every opportunity. It was sloppy and inefficient. If Quiet Man and Toothpick had practice they could be really effective at destroying another man's game.
     Ciro wouldn't make the mistake of being inefficient. He had the habit of doing a thing perfectly. He wouldn't a couple of greens run a scam like this, which meant Ciro wasn't doing it. This was all Joey Silver's play. It wasn't uncommon for people to run things on the side, but this didn't have the feel of something Ciro would approve of. Danny Kincaid was a little high profile, and if he wanted Danny for something, he wouldn't want Joey Silver running other jobs on him.
     "Slater, your bet." Toothpick tapped two chips in a fast staccato.
     I took a few more puffs, blowing a stream out above the table as if I hadn't heard.
     "Slater!" Toothpick dropped the chip and picked up his drink.
     Quiet Man grunted. Even he was getting impatient.
     I let a grin slip to my face. "Call," I kept my eyes on Joey.
     "Straight, four through eight." Toothpick smirked.
     Quiet Man turned over his cards, another straight, but for lack of a single suit it was a royal flush.
     "God damn it!" Toothpick swore, and took a swig, draining it to the rocks.
     I turned over my pair of nines and three threes.
     "Son of a—How'd you do that?" Toothpick glared at me.
     "It's all in the cards,"I gathered up the winnings, but kept my eyes on the people.
     There. If I hadn't been watching, I wouldn't have caught it. Quiet Man's eyes had gone a little wide before narrowing down on me with anger. I was getting to him.
     "I'm out," Toothpick spat. "Shoulda quit when Danny stopped betting." He gathered up his winnings in a pile.
     Quiet Man didn't look ready to give up out of sheer stubbornness, but he regarded his pile of chips. Without Toothpick, it would just be on him, and in a straight game he'd no doubt take me apart, but I could keep sliding cards in and out without him knowing. In fact, the last time I had thrown away cards, I had dumped more than I said, getting rid of all but the King of Clubs from my stash. Even now I considered sliding it out under cover of chips, but there were too many careful eyes right now.
     Quiet Man grunted, then gathered up his chips. He was tired of losing.
     "Seems you're out of players. Time to clear the debt."
     "We're still game to play." If he bowed out I'd have to talk to Ciro about ditching us on a game, or we'd just have to make a break for it. I thought I might be able to get us running enough to surprise the mooks, but didn't want to chance it unless necessary. "How about we just play against the house?" I pointed my cig at the dealer before tapping ash into the glass tray.
     "A fine idea," Joey began, and I got that twinge just behind my ear that something bad was about to happen. I had learned to trust that twinge. It told me when the pocket was that of a cop, it told me when a guy would feel me, and it told me that I had missed something. I had missed something.
     "Instead of Jake dealing, since he doesn't know how to play, " a bald-faced lie if ever I heard one, "someone else will take over for him and represent the house." Joey put a hand on Jake's shoulder, who nodded, and slipped away.
     No discussion. I didn't have an answer for that. The house could change dealers if they wanted, but I knew what was really going on. He was bringing in a shark. That made the game tougher. I could keep slipping cards, but whoever came in could stack the deck for some impossible to beat hands.
     I went through the math on bailing out of here, but I couldn't get the figures to come out right. Bullets would end up flying, and I had already tossed a gun away. I'd have to get Joey's gun to even stand a chance. Sticking up a guy in the middle of Ciro Rosetti's speakeasy was a career-ender. I'd find out first-hand about cement shoes in the bay.
     "Ah, here we are. May I introduce Laura Martin, your new dealer." The gal walked in with a skirt longer than that of the cigarette girl, and a blouse not as tight. It hinted at some curves, though, and she had the top buttons undone more than the cigarette girl had. She had a confident walk, and extended her hand. I rose, and received her hand, catching the scent of vanilla and some flower as I did. Then I kicked Danny in the shin for him to show some manners. "Ben Slater. Nice to meet you."
     I took her in as she shook Danny's hand, seeing sharp eyes a shade lighter than her hair take everything in. The almost black hair was done in big curls, but pinned up to the back of her head like some kind of mane that left her neck bare and revealed dangling, silver earrings, but the hair still flowed down. She was pretty young, but the set of her chin and those eyes told me she had been around a bit, and I had to believe that or Joey wouldn't have brought her in to shark me.
     "Shall we play?" she smiled as if she didn't have a thought in her head, but I knew better. The gal was dangerous. Joey brought her in thinking I'd be taken by her pretty face and think that a woman couldn't do me in. I knew better, but the play still had every chance of working.
     I pulled out another Lucky, offering her one, which she declined. I took a pull and blew the smoke out the corner of my mouth. I might lose and have to run Danny out of here quick, but I had the feeling that this game would at least be fun.
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