By popular demand, another short story by author Michael Collins. This one centres around a high stakes poker game. Adult themes, containing strong language and some violence.
♠ ♣ ♥ ♦
Smoke from Hammond’s cigar drifted across the room under the soft lamplight as the dealer revealed the flop. The first card placed seemed like a perfect metaphor for my situation. A♠ stood balefully on the baize and for a moment I was reminded of that old song and wondered again if there was any way out of this room. 3♦ followed and then 5♣, ruling out any immediate flush draw. I sat back outwardly calm, as if the flop had been just as I expected, and looked for the others’ reactions.
Hammond took another deep draw on his cigar and nodded, and I knew that he had received no help; he had no pair and probably nothing higher than a snowman. He checked. Jenkins, on the other hand, almost certainly had the straight; she had sniffed twice as the flop came out, and tapped her right index finger against the table, taking a long time to check. She had bet large and fast when her hole was dealt, a sure sign from her that her cards meant nothing, and her reticence now betrayed the excitement she felt.
Donatti said, ‘Fuck it,’ loudly, and threw in two hundred. That meant nothing, at least to me; Donatti did that on every flop. Masterson grinned at Donatti’s casual profanity, rested his hand on his pudgy chin, and waited for a minute before calling the Italian. That meant he had a middle pair, or maybe better, as his flat call was a clear invitation to me to take the lead. As for me, the five had given me trips, but now I knew that the bitch had me beat. Still, I made them sweat it for a while, and why not? They had made me sweat long enough and hard enough tonight already.
I took in the surroundings briefly. Hammond’s back room, or ‘den’ as the American labelled it, was a large, expansively decorated space, with beautifully varnished mahogany chairs around the table we played at. I had it in my mind to stub out a cigarette on one of the bloody things if I could. The lush, red velvet curtains drawn across the patio doors at the back of the room must have cost more than I made in a month running the shop, and I wanted to tear them down and piss on them. Gaudy reproductions of Old Masters lined the walls. The dealer was a beautiful silent black woman; her skin seemed to glimmer and shine in the soft light from the lamp.
I tossed in four hundred worth of chips. That would make them think. Donatti glanced over at me, and grinned evilly. ‘Bastard’s got somethin’,’ he said, revealing perhaps the whitest, shiniest teeth I had ever seen. ‘What you got, Mike?’
Jenkins shifted a little in her seat, pursing her pouty lips a little, and I knew for certain she had the straight, and she thought I did, too. She wasn’t the best at this game. Masterson smiled faintly, and said, ‘I think you may be right, Francis.’ Donatti glared at him in mock anger, made as if to hit him, and said, ‘Fuck you, Jack! My name is Frankie!’ Masterson and Jenkins laughed; this was obviously an ongoing joke. Hammond just looked at me.
He passed and tossed his cards towards the dealer. Next was Jenkins, the only one who could take me out. My going over the top had obviously rattled her, but she was determined not to lose her straight, you could see it in her eyes. Pretty eyes. They had overseen the torture and murder of almost a dozen men, I reminded myself. ‘Call,’ she said eventually, sounding disgusted with herself by making it such a large pot. Donatti said ‘Fuck it,’ again and tossed in his cards. The dealer made them vanish without a word. Masterson seemed to take an age, but he threw his pair away eventually, leaving just me and the woman.
The turn brought 8♥, no help for either of us. Jenkins checked in that ripe, sultry accent of hers, and I threw in five hundred just to see what she would do. I could afford to lose it; I was more than five grand up, and wouldn’t feel the pinch unless I went under four figures. Still, it was a pot I wanted to win. I had no other way of striking at these people at the moment, and I wanted to hurt them as much as they had hurt me. Especially Hammond.
The bitch, after an age, eventually matched with a vicious look in those baby blues, and the dealer picked up the river and placed it on the table. 10♣, and that was it for this pot, unless the woman lost her nerve.
She did not. ‘All in.’ She actually declared it with a little quiver in her voice, and I knew that this hand had hurt her a little. Good, I thought. Good.
I asked for a countdown.
Jenkins grimaced, the first emotion she had shown which was out in the open. Masterson snickered behind his fat hand, and Hammond raised an eyebrow. The dealer leant over and checked Jenkins’ stack while I waited, with a smile on my face. I had no intention of calling her, even though I had her stack beaten, but she didn’t know that, and I was enjoying making her squirm.
The dealer finished her count. Three thousand four hundred.
Still I waited.
Seconds ticked out of the grandfather clock in the corner. The only other sound was the clink! of the ice in Hammond’s glass of whiskey. Jenkins was just about holding on to her calm.
‘Pass,’ I said.
Jenkins seemed to sag as she reached for the chips.
♠ ♣ ♥ ♦
For a few moments there was silence, apart from the click as Jenkins arranged her stack and the whicker/snap! as the dealer made the cards dance and spin in her hands in a nice box shuffle. Then Hammond asked, in a gentle, friendly voice,
‘Did you visit her grave today?’
Her grave. Julie. My sister Julie, who, it could be argued, had got me into all this trouble. Not her fault, of course, but what did intentions matter at this point? She was dead, and her actions were going to get me just as dead too. Did that mean I loved her any less? Of course not; she had less choice than I did, but the small, dark part of me could love her and hate her simultaneously for what had happened.
I was – had been, at least – a croupier at The Flamingo Casino, a small, shabby place in Kemble St, just off the Strand. I loved my job, loved the simple yet extravagant skills of shuffling and dealing the cards, and the mental arithmetic; it kept my mind agile. I liked the old style courtesy too – ‘Sir bets,’, bow ties, and freshly shined shoes every day; made me feel like a gentleman for a short period, although I was as rough as any other wideboy growing up in Bow.
I knew the whole racket was a cover for the mobsters and the gangsters, of course. Any place in London which had that amount of green flowing through on a daily basis would attract the crims; it didn’t bother me for a second. My money was always clean; I was never asked to fix a game, or flush off a high roller. The front was clean, the casino was straight up.
‘I visit her grave every day, Mr Hammond.’ Mr Hammond. That fucker had me using the old style courtesy even with a gun to my head. But the bastard had that way about him, that grey-haired elegance. He looked like an old style movie star, Bogart in Rick’s club, or maybe Cary Grant driving Grace Kelly around Monte Carlo; he had a suave nonchalance about him, with his double-breasted suits and his Phantom sat outside the Flamingo on Thursdays. He was American too; had their easy charm.
6♣, 5♦; no good, instant fold.
It was said that he didn’t actually own the Flamingo himself, was said that he was just a patsy for the Montelivios, or maybe some Russians; whomever held the muscle from one month to the next. I didn’t believe any of that myself. Hammond carried himself like the man, and his hangers-on – these parasites sitting at this table in the back of his club, waiting for my last hand and my death like vultures, or maybe vampires ready to suck my blood – were under no illusions about their status in his company.
‘I hope the flowers I provided still bloom,’ he said, taunting me, that smooth Californian accent bouncing around my head. I felt a flash of pain across the front of my skull – not physical, almost psychic – but gave no outward sign. I couldn’t let him score points off me that easily. Instead I took a sip of my Scotch – Lagavulin, 16 years aged; the good stuff – and sat awaiting the next deal.
AK♦; here we go again. I raised from first position. With other players it would have seemed transparent, but I had played on a reputation of looseness in early position, and the others knew I had a wide range of activity from where I was. My raise scared off nobody, just what I wanted. Waiting for the flop, Hammond made his next barb.
‘I understand Cherry’s has a new Friday night hot girl. Another redhead, I’m told, although of course I cannot say for sure, never having frequented that place. Mrs Hammond would never forgive me, you know.’
That calm, almost intimate manner of speaking. As if we were best friends, and the only two people in the room. Of course, in a way, we were. The only two people that mattered, at least. I had to win the game to stay alive, and he was the best at the table – maybe even better than me. It would come down to a showdown between the two of us, that was certain. And his patter, his commentary, was all designed to make me lose my cool, my cards, and my life, in that specific order.
That was the thing, you see: if I won, I lived. If I lost, I died.
Two aces and a king – absurdly – came the flop, which turned any chance I had of trapping into shit. After two straight rounds of checking I vainly bet the pot on the river to try and stir some action, to no avail, and my monster hand won me little more than the blinds as everybody folded.
♠ ♣ ♥ ♦
This is what happened: this is why I ended up in this room.
Julie was twenty three, beautiful and bright, when on a blazing hot Saturday May afternoon she and two of her friends had encountered three young men in the outside garden of a pub on the Thames – one of those cool places on the South Bank somewhere, she told me, I disremember which exactly. Of course, what comes naturally to us all came to these hot young things also. An afternoon by the river, hot sun and cold drinks, an invitation to dinner, more drinks, onto a club…
At the end of the night, she shared a taxi back with the guy she’d hooked up with, and he paid her fare, dropped her off at her place with a kiss – the perfect gentleman. She had fallen hook line and sinker for a great guy, happens every day. The guy, of course, was Hammond’s youngest son, and once he got his claws into my sister she was lost to us. Within three months she’d left her good, stable job (she’d been running a jewellery store in Bluewater) to start dancing at some scuzzy club in Bethnal Green, at his behest of course. Within six months she was smoking crack, within ten, skin-popping. I watched the light fade from her eyes.
He wanted her to start tricking like some of his other girls, something she vehemently refused to do. The dances were all that her pride would let her sink to. She refused him three times – the third time after he had taken her to an apartment outside of the city, ostensibly to score but in reality so he could pimp her. She slapped him and scratched him in front of a Polish thief who’d asked for payment in pussy rather than pounds; made him bleed in front of this scum.
‘You can hit me all you like, but I’ll never be your whore,’ she’d said.
That sent him over the edge. He bludgeoned her to death with a baseball bat. It took eight blows and less than thirty seconds.
The call to the police was made anonymously; the apartment wasn’t owned; there were no witnesses; no murder weapon was ever found; Wayne Hammond had a cast-iron alibi. The ‘case’ remains open to this day, eight weeks later.
As does the investigation into the death of Wayne Hammond.
Really, I was lucky; most of the time he spent with bodyguards and entourages, the man never seemed to be alone. For the three weeks I followed him he was never without a coterie of hangers-on, flies attracted to shit, and one or two burly lads with suspicious shoulder bulges. I caught up to him in the most incongruous of locations – the library. What on earth he was doing in there, and alone at that, I never stopped to question. I made the most of my good luck.
He didn’t say much. Gangsters like him live under the constant threat of death so I supposed he expected this, or something like it. He expressed little surprise when I told him who I was and little emotion when he recounted the events of Julie’s death. Almost the only thing he said to me; in fact the last thing he said before he died was, ‘I loved her.’ He didn’t plead or panic, didn’t tell me this to try and stay my hand. I think he told me because it was true.
I felt nothing when I ended him. There was no sense of triumph or guilt in my mind as I wiped the knife clean. Nor did I see his face in my dreams that night, like Julie had visited me so often.
I had a perfunctory visit from two coppers, who seemed to accept my lies at face value. I learned later that Hammond had paid off the police so that he could exercise his personal brand of justice. Ten days after the police knocked on my front door received another knock, and opened the door to three big, heavily muscled men who requested my attendance at a special game of cards at Mr Hammond’s estate. Upon arrival I was given £3000 and told the stakes. That was four hours ago.
♠ ♣ ♥ ♦
Candy Jenkins was on the rack. In spite of the big hand she’d won with her straight she had been down on chips for a while, and I had been using my position to start bullying her off her blinds. She bled for a dozen or so hands, and when she eventually found a hand (J♣, 8♥), Masterson knocked her off with his middle ace. She stood gracefully, showing off her surgically enhanced curves, warmly congratulated her conqueror then turned to me, and in her sexy movie star voice, told me that she was sorry she would miss my execution, and that when I got to hell I should tell my whore of a sister that Candy says hello, bitch. Then with a twitch of her hips she picked up her fur coat, and sashayed to the door.
One down, four to go.
There followed one of those lulls that affects every game, one of those fallow periods where nobody gets cards. I had a run of fifteen hands where I hit nothing higher than a seven, one set of connectors, and two suited holes. There was nothing I could do but to throw them away and bide my time. The one time I tried a bluff, with a seven/four off-suit, the two next players immediately came over the top. I made it through two levels of blinds still up, but not with the stack to run the table.
With the dealer button in front of Hammond, however, I flopped a pair of Kings, two big cowboys. It came down to me and Donatti. ‘Fuck it,’ he said when I raised him, and went all in. My call was swift and sure in spite of my hammering heart. He turned over two snowmen. I resisted the urge to raise my fist in exultation when the river came with no eight, and the dealer swept his pile of chips my way. Sometimes – oftentimes – poker is like that, and for all the skill, all the reads, all the plays, it comes down to turning the cards and letting fate take its hand. Fate kept the other two eights off the table, and me in the game. Donatti called me a lucky fucker – not without a baleful sort of good humour, I thought – downed his glass of Scotch, and swept out of the room.
Two down, three to go.
By this point, Hammond (who had given Masterson a withering look of frustration as he knocked out Jenkins) had the chip lead from me. Masterson had pretty much his original stake, and trailing badly was the other player, Gary the Jap (not Japanese at all, an Irishman who ran dope through North London for Hammond and had been given this unlikely nickname for reasons unknown to all), who had barely half left of his stack. He was a fair player but the liquor had taken its toll and led him to a number of bad decisions. He made a rash move over the top, Masterson cleaned him out when the flop failed to improve, and that was all she wrote.
Three down, two to go.
With the chip lead, I began to play more aggressively, targeting Masterson. The fat bastard had hung on for over an hour without making any sort of move on my stack, and now he was just wasting time. I wanted him gone so I could get to the real business of the night, so when I hit a hand (Kojak in ♣) on his big blind I made my move and sent my chips flying into the middle, all in. He instantly called, and when he turned over, my heart stopped. Two red Aces glinted on the green baize of the card table.
Shit. Shit, shit, shit. What did I have here, one chance in five? Less, even. The dealer counted the two stacks and confirmed what I already knew. Masterson had less than three hundred in chips more than me, but one chip would have been enough. I was fucked, dead. I took a glance over at Hammond, and saw just the briefest grimace cross his face. That felt right – he wanted to finish me for himself, and now was going to be denied the chance.
The dealer, impassive, peeled off the three cards of the flop, and turned them over. A♣, 7♦ 2♠. My odds went from 20% down to less than 5%. Only two running clubs or a queen and a ten could save me now. I was going to die in this quiet back room.
♠ ♣ ♥ ♦
I’d met Hammond once – long before Julie had ever ran into his degenerate arsehole son. This was just before I lost my job at the Flamingo, the last really good time in my life.
It was a Thursday night, late, and the Flamingo was at its best – the place as bright as Chelsea Gardens at sunny midday, and packed to the rafters, bursting with laughter, cheers, curses, bells, whistles and chimes. I was running a Texas cash game and the atmosphere was nice and chilled, even though the table had the better part of a hundred grand spread amongst the five players. It was just after eleven when he came in, with a jaw-dropping blonde on his arm and two or three cronies. I spotted him out of the corner of my eye as I waited for the Chinese guy in position to make his call or fold (he’ll fold, I remember telling myself, he knows his man has the pair already) as he strode towards the main bar the other side of the roulette wheels, slow, elegant and in command. He was wearing a three quarter length dark woollen coat, and a double breasted grey suit underneath. The blonde was wearing a shimmery blue silk dress and nothing else. However it was Hammond who caught the eye; his power and authority demanded the crowd’s attention.
As the Chinese folded with a grimace Hammond and his paramour collected their drinks and began making their way over, picking their way through the crowd. As he came to the table Hammond caught my eye, and pointed to one of the empty seats. I nodded and held off the draw to accommodate him. One of his cronies pulled a stack of chips and took the next seat. Still with his dark eyes on me, Hammond took the other spare.
(Came the turn, Q♥. Only a ten could save my life now. Four cards. 9% chance)
For the next two hours he treated the table to an exhibition of hold ‘em play, using his position to perfection, hiding his hands perfectly, trapping some and bluffing others. He had great cards – rockets, cowboys, AK on a couple of occasions – but he took advantage every time, and maximised every opportunity. He sat down with a table of strangers and I swear he read them all. He had an uncanny knack of knowing when the monster hand was over him. He magnified his stake ten fold without ever being in trouble once. It remains the single greatest poker performance I have ever seen.
He stood, finished his drink, and held out his hand to the stunning blonde. Turning back to me he picked a random stack of chips and said, ‘For your expertise, croupier.’ He held my gaze as he pressed them into my hands. ‘A pleasurable evening.’ Then, before I could say a word, he turned, collected the blonde (that is the only word I can use to describe how he took her arm and enfolded it with hers, how she forced herself to match his stride so he didn’t have to break his – such a simple physical movement, but one so redolent of possession) and made for the door, flunkies in tow. I can remember thinking to myself as my hands (purely automatically) readied the cards for the next hand that I had encountered the closest thing to a bona-fide old style Hollywood movie star that I would ever get to – such was the poise and, well, class that he exuded. I felt privileged to have served him, such was the wattage of his star power.
I took a fag break around three a.m. and bumped into Del, who had propped open the back fire escape and was brooding over a mild joint. I told him about my star guest.
‘Mate, don’t you know who that is?’ he asked me, a smile on his lips but not his eyes. There was amusement in his voice.
‘That’s Mr Hammond. He came to town maybe three years ago mate, from Vegas. Him and his boys cleaned out the Yardies in that Soho war. He’s one of the biggest bosses in town mate. You’re lucky you dealt him winners, boy. He’d chop your head off as quickly as look at you.’
I took the stack of chips from my pocket, counted them. They came to just over four thousand pounds. ‘He gave me these,’ I said, showing Del. His eyes went wide at the sight. ‘Fuck me!’ he said, grinning. ‘I gotta get me back on the hold ‘em tables!’
(waiting for the river, waiting for my death, I smiled at the memory of Del and I laughing on the fire escape stairs. Hammond and Masterson shared a glance in child-like surprise.)
That was my last day at the Flamingo. I was caught trying to cash the chips two days later, summarily dismissed, and had my licence taken away. I could no longer afford my two bed, two bath maisonette apartment in Camden and had to downsize. Julie, at seventeen, moved out and took a room in a studio flat down by the Thames, taking the first steps to her fate.
The dealer slipped the river card off the deck and slowly, so damn slowly, moved it into the middle of the table. Slowly, ever so slowly, she turned it right side up. I couldn’t breathe.
It was the ten of clubs.
For what seemed like a thousand years the three of us sat there in silence, somehow all managing to look at each other, as the dealer moved the ace, queen and ten into position to signify my winning straight. Nobody said a word as she swept the chips towards me. Masterson looked incapable of speech in any case – I certainly was. I was knee-deep in my grave and the cards had bailed me out. Hammond said nothing but there was just the faintest ghost of a smile playing about his lips.
Two hands later, after an incredible double up when his six paired to turn over my Ace, Masterson was out.
Four down. Just two of us left, Hammond and I. Showdown.
♠ ♣ ♥ ♦
‘Do you remember me?’ I asked him.
‘Yes, I remember you. The croupier,’ he said.
‘That’s right. That night was the last night I ran that table; they fired me two days later.’
‘Yes, accepting tips was not allowed in London back then, I remember.’
(his deal, my blind, he folded instantly)
‘I never should have taken it.’
‘Not the only lesson you learned that night, I suppose.’
(my deal, King, I raised, he folded instantly)
‘You earned that tip, though, my boy,’
(he lit another cigar)
‘I spent eleven years in Vegas before coming here. I know a good operator when I see one.’
(his deal, he raised, I folded instantly)
I said nothing. The more I engaged in conversation, the more I played his game. We were almost exactly even in chips. One wrong move in heads-up would end the game.
The dealer dealt. I looked at my cards. Two red Aces looked back at me.
Hammond smiled. ‘Good hand?’ he said. He moved all his chips into the middle. ‘I’m all in.’
I smiled back. ‘Not bad,’ I replied.
His smile crinkled and died as I called and turned over my Aces. His KJ♥ withered on the table.
The dealer counted out the chips and announced that we were exactly level in chips. Barring a split pot this would be the last hand of the game.
The flop came 4♦, 5♣, 8♥.
‘I loved my sister more than anyone,’ I told him. ‘Your son had to die for what he did.’
6♥ on the turn. Any heart would give him the hand. Aces couldn’t get cracked twice in one night, surely? Time began to slide ever so slowly, like maple syrup off the spoon into the mixing bowl.
‘My son was a waste of good air,’ Hammond said, ‘but only I had the right to kill him. Not you.’
The dealer turned over the 7♥.
Hammond smiled again. ‘Game over,’ he said.
♠ ♣ ♥ ♦
The dealer began to put the cards and chips away as Hammond smoked his cigar and gazed at me through the smoke. ‘You played very well,’ he said. I could tell that he meant it. ‘I haven’t seen the game played so well since I came over from Vegas. You are as good a player as you were a dealer.’
I said nothing.
‘No answer? Or you don’t want to accept a compliment from me?’ He shrugged. ‘Very well.’ He stubbed his cigar out in the ashtray as the dealer put the cards and chips under the table, looking away to reach for his whiskey glass as the dealer came back from under the table with a handgun in her hand, looking back as the dealer raised the pistol to him. He had barely begun to open his mouth to shout – what, a plea? Or a warning? – as the gun fired (suppressed, of course, the shot barely made a sound) and a bright red spot appeared on his shirt. His brilliant eyes dimmed as he dropped the glass and slumped into his chair.
Denise turned to me, as impassive as ever. ‘There is a back door behind the bar, remember. It opens out onto the alley. At the top of the alley is the car, with the keys under the front left wheel arch. Go; I’ll meet you at the ferry.’
I grabbed her, kissed her on the mouth. I pulled away, then turned back; Denise had already turned from me, reading herself to battle Hammond’s goons.
‘Did you fix that last hand?’ I asked, curious despite myself.
She turned, her black hair flashing out from her head. She smiled.
‘A good croupier never fiddles the cards,’ she said. ‘Now go!’
I was laughing as I ran up the alley to the getaway car, with the cash from the game in a holdall bag over my shoulder. It was the first time I had laughed since Julie died.