Laura let the cards sail. She didn't bother to deal Danny in. Joey frowned momentarily at that, but then shrugged. Everyone knew that the game rode on my performance, not Danny's. Danny took a nervous drink at some whiskey, his hand jangling the ice in the glass. The stakes had made themselves known to him, but he didn't know that the hardest was yet to come. I'd much rather face off against Toothpick and the Quiet Man again. Maybe.
The first hands showed nothing special. I didn't expect her to deal me winners or flat out losers right away. Like I had done with the boys before, we had to get to know each other. All the metaphors meant nothing. We didn't dance, we didn't fence, we didn't spar back and forth, and we certainly didn't feel each other out. We shook hands. I'd known people who liked to clamp down on a hand with everything they got. Others went for the finger crush, squeezing on tender digits before the palms met. Some were timid and tentative, while others didn't seem to care. Laura and I shook hands with the cards, trying to figure out how the other played the game.
She dealt straight for the first dozen hands, neither one of us betting more than a couple of hundred at a hand. She let me win a few of them, trying to learn my game. For my part I let a couple of decent hands go despite a shot at taking the pot. I wanted to pocket cards instead. She had quick eyes, so I couldn't tell if she saw me slide the cards. I did catch hints of surprise at the corners of her eyes on those times when I folded, especially when I had a pair of Ladies and Cowboys.
She dealt the next hand, but I didn't look at it yet. I just held it in my hand while I took a small swig of Scotch.
She knew the cards she dealt me.
It was only a matter of time before she figured out I pocketed cards, and then things would get really interesting. I had no overt signs of her dirty dealing, but stacking a deck wasn't difficult. I could keep an eye on the deck, but something told me she was good enough that I wouldn't see a thing, likely why Joey brought her in.
I looked at my cards. Four through eight stared back at me. She had dealt me a straight.
"One hundred," I opened.
I hadn't been able to see any tells in her this whole time. She was a pro at keeping her cool. That was okay. I thought I had another way to tell what she had. Curiosity got the better of me, even though that was a decent chunk of cash and would take me below two and half Gs.
She flashed a smile, a lop-sided smile with a hint of bright, white teeth that reminded me of some kind of predator toying with its food.
"Flush," she turned over the five diamonds.
I tossed my straight onto the table, showing my straight, then gestured to the chips.
She gathered them up, and dealt new hands. I hadn't been able to get a handle on how she played, but Joey wasn't nearly as good a player as she. While she made a porcelain doll seem expressive, I got a line on all of Joey's tells. He liked to play with his watch chain when nervous, and he had slight curl to his upper lip when Laura had a good hand.
I began a winning streak for every hand that mattered. I called her every bluff, and folded at every good hand she had. I noticed that the curl to Joey's lip was proportional to the strength of the hand. Laura frowned after the fifth straight bluff I had nailed her on, and took extra time shuffling the cards. I had won the last round with a pair of nines to her deuces.
Laura dealt it out again, and I looked at my hand. Two pair, aces and eights stared back at me, all black. Dead Man's Hand as it was known in the old west, what Hickock held when he was gunned down. The kicker was the eight of hearts. She gave me a full house with based on Dead Man's Hand. This was not a good sign despite the strength of the hand. Still, it was a hard hand to beat.
I considered her carefully, tapping ash from my Lucky, then, deciding it wasn't worth smoking it all the way down, I tamped it out in the tray. She didn't so much as bat an eye at me. No curve to her lips, no tilt to her head, no tapping fingers, nothing. She held her cards in one hand, long nails reflecting a glossy shine, but no color to them. She didn't go out of her way to make the meaning of the message clear. Lucky for me, Joey's smile and popped eyes told me everything I needed to know.
She could have a better full house, but the pop to Joey's eyes said she held something higher. I shook my head to her, and tossed my cards down, revealing the full house. "Take it."
Her eyes narrowed on me, the suspicion sparking in those dark eyes. She knew the quality of her poker face, and she likely knew my tells by now, though I had no idea what they were. There was no earthly reason I should be folding on a full house.
"Dead Man's Hand with an extra eight. Are you superstitious?" she asked, no trace of the empty-headed girl remained in her voice.
"Hickock's last hand. Didn't think it was wise to bet on it. Didn't serve Bill well."
"Who?" Danny asked?
I shot a quick glare at him, and he went quiet. If it weren't for Danny's bad habit I could have collected my fee and enjoyed a nice radio drama before calling it quits for the night.
I shook a cigarette out, and lit it taking a puff.
"I wouldn't have taken you for one to believe in omens." The corners of her mouth curled up in a small smile.
"I'm a strange case. I know Lady Luck can turn fickle fast." I shook another cig out of the pack, and offered it to her. She tilted her head slightly, considering me, then nodded. I rose, stretching across the table. She plucked the cigarette, then leaned forward for me to light it.
"Night's a' wasting, gent." Joey observed. He was right. Many of the patrons had left. A few would stay until Ciro kicked them out. I didn't want to be here that long; neither did Joey. I couldn't let Joey be right, either.
"Nothing wrong with taking a moment to talk to the lady, Joey."
That got me a smirk from Laura, and I could see in her eyes she knew I wanted to tweak Joey. She slouched, took a long drag, and let out a long stream through a rosebud mouth. "You know your cards to know about Hickcock, Mr. Slater." She tapped ash into the bowl.
"A misspent youth."
"You ever plan to grow up?" Her smirk became sarcastic.
"This is me all growed up."
"I think I would have liked the younger you a lot more. Someone I would have liked to get to know."
I popped out a smoke ring that came out more lopsided, misshapen oval than circle, and blew a stream after it. She had to know I had slipped cards by now. I couldn't assume she missed that. Something in what she said pulled at me. My misspent youth and someone she would have liked to get to know. Five years ago I would probably have been her. Pulling pockets, running mild scams, and even picking locks had been my thing. Like any good street rat, I had run with a crew. I could easily see myself working alongside Laura to pull jobs.
I started wondering why she was here. It would be a waste of her talents simply to be a card shark for Ciro. She wouldn't rake in enough to satisfy her. More than that was the boredom. Flipping cards got old quick, which is why I had stopped running my games of monty. This dame had fire, and wouldn't be tamed even by the likes of Ciro. Especially not by Joey Silver.
So why was she here? The options got narrowed down to one: she was scamming Ciro. Dangerous, that. If done wrong she'd likely end up dead. Even if done right she might have to run. She'd have to finesse her way through so that Ciro didn't know he'd been conned, or blamed it on someone else. Joey, maybe?
"I think," I rested the cigarette on the edge of the tray, "I would have liked to get to know you, too. Nothing stopping us from striking up, now, is there?"
Joey scowled, and checked the watch hanging from his vest. It was an amateur gesture to try and get us to speed things along."
"Except I'm working for the house."
"Are you now? Seems I forgot. Ain't that a shame."
Joey clicked the watch shut with a loud clack. Laura picked up the cards and dealt again, cigarette hanging expertly from her lips.
The hands rolled out in much the same was as they had before, Laura manipulating the hands to try and figure out how I could read her tell. She changed up her behaviors, holding the cards with a different hand, glancing down at the cards instead of raising them up, shuffling the hand's order several times, and squinting at me hard whenever I read her right. I still couldn't read her, but Joey was an open book. I managed to get us up to three Gs that way. I wanted to pull a big hand. I held some decent cards back, but Laura didn't let me raise the pot to more than a few hundred. It would take a while to get up to five Gs at this rate.
My streak didn't last, though. Joey, on seeing her hand, let out a little cough and his eyes bugged. The sound was enough attract Laura's attention, and she looked at him. On seeing his face, she stared hard at me. I gave a slight shrug, and an arrogant smirk. The way her eyes shifted to the left, where Joey stood behind her shoulder, told me her scowl was for him. I simply used the tools available to me. From that point on, she only lifted up the corners of her cards, and didn't show them to Joey.
The game got much harder from that point on, and her scowl soon became a delighted smirk of triumph. She whittled me back down to two and a half, which was when I started sliding my own cards into play. The hands became quick, deliberately so. I couldn't get a decent read on her, and she already knew my tells. The betting didn't get much bigger, but it did grow. We pushed a full G on one hand; fortunately I won, taking us up to over three and a half. She smiled at the win, too. She was having fun. After learning how I had been beating her, it became a game again, a chance to have fun with someone who could at least provide a challenge. I got the feeling the people she usually played were of Danny's caliber.
Now and again I managed to sneak her dealing a card from the bottom or a few from the top. I didn't know whether it was because she wanted me to see or I had gotten used to her style of dealing. I did know she had a habit of tucking her pinky nail into certain spots of the deck to mark her place, likely why she didn't color the nails. If the faintest hint of colored polish ever came off, people would know. Bright, colored nails also attracted attention, they drew the eye, and she didn't want eyes anywhere near her hands.
"Well, Mr. Slater? Call or fold."
It was a good question. I had a jackpot, but that didn't mean a whole lot in this game. I couldn't sit around waiting any longer. Too bad the sevens were the wrong suit, or I would lift one. I already held back the nine, ten, and jack of diamonds. A seven would be ideal to building a straight flush.
No sense wishing for what wasn't. "Call."
She laid out a low straight with what I came to think of as her smirk.
I showed off my three sevens, and let her take the chips. That knocked me to just under three Gs. If it were just me and the doll, I'd go all night just for the fun of it, even though I knew she'd take me for everything I had. It wasn't the two of us; I had Danny to get home in one piece.
I felt at the pocket inside my jacket, noting only a few of the cigarettes remained. I'd do without. I took a swig from the scotch-coated melted ice in my glass. I had stopped drinking when we had taken our little smoke break.
She dealt the next hand, which didn't amount to anything, except the two cards on the end: the seven and eight of diamonds. I kept my face smooth, and went through my regular shuffling of the order, pulling two of the cards up my sleeve into the hand, and sliding one back up. I carefully kept two cards overlapped. I could pass them off as a single card when I asked for replacements.
"Two-fifty," I opened strong. This was my chance, my only chance. I had a bad feeling she knew what I had held, but the night was getting too late. Soon the place would empty out, and Ciro would wonder what was going on back here. That would get Danny out just fine, but I didn't want to spoil my evening any further.
"Must be something good," Laura gave a slow smile.
"Gotta stay in to find out."
She plunked down the chips, then moved another stack in, bringing it up eight hundred. "Your turn, shamus."
I had a straight flush, a decent one at that. I had to take this as far as I could, even if it meant she broke me. This time of night, I might be able to run out of here before Joey could get his goons on me.
I made a show of looking at my cards, like I was no longer as confident in them, which I wasn't. She could pull out a higher hand on me pretty easily, and not a thing I could do about it. I pushed in chips to call.
I asked for one card, placing my two out there, careful not to show there was more than one card there. She dealt me one from the bottom of the deck. The king of spades.
I moved back into the betting, going in for "Five hundred."
It was close. With that pot, we almost had enough to pay the debt, but I had to push it further.
She leaned back, tapping a finger on her face down cards as if considering, but her eyes stayed glued to me. She was toying with me, and thoroughly enjoying it. I think she wanted to see me squirm. I kept my eyes on her, and felt my lips curve slightly. No, that wasn't it at all. She wanted to see if I would squirm, wanted to see if I had what it took. This was a professional evaluation. I had been out of the game for awhile, forgotten how it went to meet another confidence artist. There was always competition as to who was better, and I think she knew she had me at cards, but so much of a grifter's job was in faking your way through things, of making yourself look cool when the whole scheme melted around you.
"You have any cigarettes left?"
I reached inside my jacket, feeling around. I took the opportunity to slide one of my business cards into the pack of cigarettes.
"Hey, what are you doing there, stealing cards?" Joey glared hard at me.
"Yeah, Joey, I'm stealing cards, my own cards." I slipped out an extra card for him to see, and tossed it onto the table in front of him. Laura chuckled at that, while Joey's scowl became more suspicious.
I pulled out the back of Lucky's, shook the pack, then tossed them over. "Take 'em. I don't think luck can take me any further tonight. All the cards are on the table."
She made a sideways glance at my card on the table. "Yes, I suppose they are."
She pulled out one of the cigarettes, quirking one eyebrow at the card she found. Joey didn't see it since his eyes locked on me like a bear trap.
I pulled my lighter out from the outside jacket pocket, and slid it over to Laura. She lit the cigarette, slid the lighter back, and blew a long streamer straight in front of Joey's face. He waved an irritated hand through the cloud, but didn't take his eyes off me.
"Call," her voice as languid as her body in the chair.
I turned my cards one by one, showing my straight flush, jack high.
"Fer Crissakes!" Joey fumed. "You better be able to beat it."
Laura overturned her cards one by one: eight, nine, and ten of hearts. My heart sank. I didn't give any indication above the table, but I tensed my legs preparing to spring and run. Jack of hearts followed the ten. Laura tapped the last card, then flipped it over with a great flair, tossing it into the pot. The Queen of spades.
"Just over five Gs. Cash us out, and clear the debt. Angel, the rest goes to you. We should do it again some time."
Laura nodded solemnly, all trace of mirth gone, and that serious, porcelain mask back.
"You, bitch!" Joey hauled her up by her shoulders, spinning her around. "You were supposed to make him lose." He hauled a hand back for a slap. I was about to get to my feet and intervene when I saw the glint of steel. "You were supposed to—" Joey paused, feeling the point of the blade at his gut.
"I don't work for you. I work for Mr. Rosetti, and he pays me to keep an honest game. Now get your mitts off me before I spill your guts to the floor."
"This ain't over, broad. You don't threaten Joey Silver and get away with it." But he did back away from her. "You, kid." He shifted his malice to Danny, who was wide-eyed at the knife. "You got lucky tonight. Next time you won't have your nurse here to come and save you. I see you again, we're going to have words. You too, dick."
"And what words would those be?" said a gruff, industrial voice.
Aw hell. So much for a simple job. I was definitely collecting the bonus from Mrs. Kincaid, now.