30 Stories in 30 Days (3 of 31)
30 Stories in 30 Days by David Wellington.
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I’d been hot and cold all night, raking in one pot just to go bad beat on another. The table was well-stocked with famous names and the cards had been running to faces but we were all a little off. The high stakes and what was happening outside turned a table full of sharks into a regular berry patch, but I couldn’t seem to pick more than my share. As the news came in and we found out just how bad things were going to get even the high-rollers started drifting away like tumbleweeds. I couldn’t stop, though. Not until I’d found my luck again. One last double-blind hand and I’d just about broke even. The cards fell on the table in neat fans, each one making an individual tiny click as it touched the baize.
Bill Cunningham, who used to be called the Michigan Kid before he grew up and got fat, leaned back in his chair and wept into his hands. A rope of snot rolled down across his knuckles. Two gorillas in three piece suits came and talked real low to him and took him back to his room.
“Two of us left,” I said, a good-sized grin on my face. I drew Cunningham’s chips towards me with my cane. “Just the way I like it.”
The Vietnamese teenager across the table met my gaze. His eyes were about as cold as the ice in the untouched club soda sitting in front of him. Quoc Ngo Thanh didn’t drink. He didn’t go for hookers or dope. He went for cards, and that was it. When he watched television he watched cards tournaments. When he read books, they were books about cards. He was supposed to have been the number one pick for the World Series of Poker that year. Only that was the year the world ended. Now he leaned sideways and muttered something to his pretty young translator. “Please,” she said, “this is how he likes it, also.”.
I gave her my best smile. “Shall we deal?”
“I’m afraid not, gentlemen,” Darcey said, walking in with a pair of his apes. They all looked flawless in their black suits, cool and composed despite what was going on outside. For all his airs Darcey still had the hard eyes and soft mouth of the pit boss he’d once been. I’d known him since those days. I’d known him longer than that.
Darcey placed a laptop computer on the table, right on top of my chips (bad, bad form, but the standards in Vegas have been slipping for years) and cracked it open. “The Hotel is officially closed and I’m going to have to ask you to come with me now.”
Thanh said through his translator, “Please, but this is not possible. There is still action at the table.” The translator blushed and looked down at her manicured hands. “Please,” she said, but she wasn’t just being polite. She was asking for something. Maybe for Darcey to ignore everything she’d just said.
I don’t think any of us really wanted to be there that night. We all knew what was coming. But sometimes when the cards are falling just right, you don’t get a choice.
Darcey clicked the laptop’s trackpad and a grainy black and white picture came up on the screen. It was the view from a surveillance camera. “The undead have broken into the basement kitchens,” he explained. On the screen I saw a bunch of guys in white clothes—chefs and busboys—running around, knocking over stainless steel pots, screaming except there was no audio. Some of the chefs’ whites were stained dark. Some of the busboys were chewing on each other.
“Mr. Thanh, your helicopter is standing by on the roof,” Darcey said, bowing to my opponent. “Mr. Cosgrove,” he said, turning to me, “you’ll have to take your chances with the rest of us. I’m afraid your car is parked in one of the garages we can no longer access.”
Thanh’s translator whispered in his ear for a long time. His face grew pinched and dark but he kept nodding whenever she finished a sentence. Finally he stood up and bowed to Darcey. He was ready to go.
Only I wasn’t.
I picked up a hundred dollar chip, my ante, and spun it right into the middle of the table. The way I’ve been doing for forty years now.
“Mr. Cosgrove, please don’t make this difficult,” Darcey said. I didn’t move.
“There’s money unaccounted for on the table. We got two players and fresh cards. You say they’re in the basement? We’re on the fifteenth floor. We got time.”
Darcey turned to look at his apes. One of them, a greasy Sicilian with a bulge in the front of his jacket, took a step forward. I reached into my own jacket and pulled out my revolver.
Everybody froze. Just like I wanted.
“Mr. Cosgrove,” Darcey said after a minute. Cool and sweat-free as ever. “May I ask how you were able to bring a firearm into this hotel?”
“Like the song goes, I’ve got friends in low places. I gave my chambermaid three thousand dollars this morning and this is what she brought me. I figured, what with the dead rising from their graves and all, it might be wise to be protected.”
“You can’t possibly think you’re going to achieve anything with that,” Darcey said. “We have you outnumbered and outgunned.”
“I don’t want to shoot anybody,” I said. “I just want to talk for a minute. Alright? Now Thanh and I, we have a game to finish. Except we’re not going to be playing for money. We’re going to play for his helicopter.”
The translator bit her lip. I looked at her until she did her job.
“I don’t fancy taking my chances with you and the staff,” I said to Darcey. “No offense, son, but I’d rather take the high road out of here.”
Darcey shook his head. “There’s no reason for me to allow such a stupid gamble, even if Mr. Thanh would agree to it. Give me the gun, Mr. Cosgrove, and we’ll forget all about this.”
“You want something out of this?” I asked. “How much do we have on the table? Two million dollars and some.”
Thanh understood numbers in English just fine. “Two millions, one three six thousands, four hundreds,” he announced.
“I’m willing to donate my interest in that pot to your hotel, Darcey. Hell, I’ll hand it over to you personally, no questions asked. All I want is you to act as dealer for one hand.”
“Your money may be worthless tomorrow morning, if this is really the end,” Darcey said. He hadn’t said yes. But he was thinking about it.
“So maybe you should spend it all tonight. Come on, Darcey. You’ve got a kid, don’t you? A little girl. For this kind of money you could buy her her own helicopter out of here,” I told him.
It felt very wrong. It felt bad and stupid and wrong. Like walking into a church and telling the priest to fuck himself. There was money on the table and I was going to just give it away.
But money was only worth what you could spend it on. If I didn’t get that helicopter I was going to be dead before tomorrow morning. I knew it. Darcey knew it. Thanh had to know it, too.
I was banking a lot on an educated guess, here. A guess as to what Thanh would do. He had no real reason to take my wager—it put his life at risk. But this was a man who ate cards for breakfast lunch and dinner. This was a man who didn’t even look once at his pretty little translator while she was bending over him and whispering in his ear. A man who flew halfway around the world to play cards with people who didn’t even speak his language. He hadn’t backed down from a game yet. I was hoping he would take this one.
“Please, Mr. Thanh says he will accept the stakes,” the translator said. I hadn’t even seen her talking to her boss. I’d been watching Darcey.
Darcey had alligator blood, as we used to say. His face was a machine crafted in a very clean factory for one purpose: to never show a single emotion. He was good at his job. Real good. But when he heard that Thanh was in, I swear, I saw his left eyelid twitch.
He turned to one of his men. “Send everyone home,” he said, and my heart fell. Then he turned back around. “What’s the game?” he asked, very quietly. The apes behind him stood up straight in their suits but he shook his head. I put my revolver back in my pocket. Darcey stepped up to the table. “Texas hold ‘em?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said, smiling. I tapped the floor with my cane. “I’m not going to switch horses in the middle of shit creek. Now, this game’s going to need a few adjustments.”
“Yes,” Darcey said. “We’ll eliminate the betting rounds since there is only one marker on the table,” he said. He signaled a gorilla and the big guy came forward and started picking chips off the table. My gut twinged as my money evaporated off the baize but this was my game. I’d chosen this. “I will deal one hand,” Darcey announced, speaking slowly so the translator could keep up. “I will deal each player two hole cards and then five community cards. We will proceed to an immediate showdown. Winner takes all.”
“We know the rules,” I said. “Let’s get to it.”
Thanh took out his phone and made a quick call to his pilot on the roof. Then he put the phone away and looked down at the empty table. No, more like he was looking through it. Maybe it was a zen thing. Maybe he was already regretting agreeing to the hand. Maybe he was just waiting for his cards. The translator stood patiently next to his shoulder.
Darcey started without another word. He broke open a sealed deck and showed it to each of us, offering us a cut. Neither of us bothered. Darcey shuffled seven times, bridging the cards in his hands. He’d done this before. When he was sixteen years old he’d lied about his age to get a job as a croupier in this very hotel.
Yeah, I knew his life story. I knew the hotel and all the people in it. I practically lived there. The staff was like a family to me. I was aware, way back in the bottom of my skull, that they were downstairs getting killed and eaten right then. But I couldn’t afford to think about them. I had a helicopter to win.
Darcey put down the hole cards in front of us, two laminated cardboard rectangles perfectly lined up next to each other, exactly one quarter inch apart. I lifted mine up enough to see what I’d got.
The king of spades and the five of diamonds.
I would’ve preferred a pair, of course. You always hope for a high pair. But I’d won games with worse hands.
Across the table Thanh picked up his cards and studied them as if they had Bible verses printed on them. I caught the translator looking at them over his shoulder. I guess she had something invested in the hand, too.
“Are we ready, gentlemen?” Darcey asked. I put my cards down and nodded. I didn’t look at Thanh—I watched Darcey’s hands as he burned off a card, then as he drew the flop.
One, two, three the cards came down. Bang bang bang like bullets out of a gun, and nothing I could use. Two of clubs, four of spades, queen of diamonds.
Thanh opened his mouth when the queen came down. He didn’t laugh or scream or whistle, he just opened his mouth a hair. Just enough so I knew he was looking for that queen. What did he have in the hole? If he had another queen in there he was already ahead of me. Was he working on a straight, a flush, what?
Darcey didn’t ask if I was ready for what came next. He burned off another card and then he dropped the turn right next to the flop. “Fourth Street,” he said.
The turn card came up the king of diamonds. I fought myself to not exhale too loud. I had a pair. Something, finally, that I could work with.
One more card. The river, lucky number seven. Fifth street. If it was a queen I was finished. If it was a king I was going to win—three kings would beat anything Thanh might have.
Darcey dropped it on the table and sat down. He didn’t say a word.
It was the jack of diamonds. A blank, a worthless card. I had a pair of kings. What Thanh had in the hole was at least a pair of queens. Maybe more.
“Gentlemen, please, let’s get to the showdown,” Darcey said. “There’s no time to waste.”
A drop of sweat rolled down my forehead and bounced off my eyelashes. Jesus. That had never happened before. Was I nervous? It had been so long I couldn’t remember what it felt like.
I threw over my cards. Pair of kings. I looked up and into Thanh’s eyes. Then I looked down at his mouth. It was open, just a fraction of an inch.
He flipped over two queens, giving him three of a kind, but I only saw that afterwards. While he was turning the cards I drew my nickel-plated revolver and shot him in the heart.
I felt like a cowboy. I felt like a winner. I yelped like a coyote. Nobody else moved. The pretty little translator started to cry. There was blood on her white blouse.
Thanh was dead instantly. He came back, his mouth open wide, his hands reaching for me across the table, his eyes still dead. I shot him again, in the brain, just like we’d been told you had to do. Then he slumped forward and he didn’t move anymore.
“Well, that’s too bad,” I said, gesturing at the cards on the table. “But I’ve got a helicopter to catch.”
The apes started bristling, their hands reaching for their lapels. It was a bluff, though. I sat there looking frosty and they backed down. They knew the logic of guns the way I knew what cards made what hands. They knew a gun in the hand like mine was worth a whole lot of guns in holsters. If they came for me at once they would get me, sure, but I would take down at least one of them before I died. None of them wanted to be the odd man out.
“You cheated, Mr. Cosgrove. Technically the bet is invalid,” Darcey said. It was that alligator blood of his talking. He saw the gun in my hand and knew what it meant just like his boys had, but he reckoned I wouldn’t shoot a man just for calling me names.
I might have done just that, just on principle—if a man thinks you’re bluffing, you start telling the truth. That’s the only way to beat him. But hellnuts, I figured he wasn’t worth the bullet. “You got paid, Darcey, so keep your opinions to yourself. Little girl, you’re with me,” I said to the translator. I was going to need somebody to talk to the Vietnamese pilot for me. She shuddered a little but then she nodded and followed me as I headed for the elevators.
As the doors opened and we stepped inside the lights flickered out for half a second. They came back on and I punched the button for the rooftop helipad. The car started up and we rode to the top in silence.
From the roof, if you didn’t mind getting the wind in your face, you could look down over the side and see half of Las Vegas was on fire. There were people running everywhere in the streets but I didn’t know if they were alive or dead.
“Come on,” I said, leading the girl toward the helicopter.
“Please, I do not think so,” she said. Then she stabbed me in the hand with a little folding knife. If she’d gone for my chest or my face I would have flinched and ruined her aim. Instead she went for my gun hand. What a move—I never saw it coming. I screamed and dropped my revolver. She kicked it over the side.
“Oh my Lord,” I cried. “Who’s paying you, little girl?” I shouted, grabbing at my bleeding flesh.
“Miss Nguyen’s services were provided as a courtesy by the Hotel,” Darcey said, coming up behind me. He had a briefcase full of my money in one hand and a big chunky pistol in the other. The kind of gun that makes fist-sized holes in people from half a town away. “You cheated, Mr. Cosgrove,” he repeated. “The bet you made is invalidated and I can’t allow you to claim your winnings. House rules.” He stepped forward and looked me in the eye. I’d known him for all of his adult life. I guess he knew me, too. He’d known I would think the girl was harmless. He’d known I wouldn’t be expecting that knife she had.
A lot of things could have gone wrong with his plan. But Darcey had that alligator blood in his veins. He took the risk.
I stood there and watched him and the girl fly away to pick up his daughter. I kept begging and pleading with them as the helicopter revved up to speed but they just flew away and left me there.
I guess it’s true what they say.
The house always wins.