All is not as it seems when a young man loses all the money to his name in a game of cards
|I had a stone in my shoe the night I lost all the money to my name in a game of cards.
I had networked for months to get into that game - laughed at the jokes of some of the slimiest of corporate characters to get into that game – and a damn stone in my shoe was not going to stop me making a classy entrance. I ignored the pain, straightened my collar, and did my best to saunter nonchalantly up to the doorman.
‘What’s with the limp?’ said the bouncer as I approached. My eyes rolled in annoyance.
‘Er, Sebastian Keys,’ I introduced myself, ‘I believe you’re expecting me?’ The bouncer wore a dark fur jacket and must have been at least a foot taller than me. He looked me up and down, like a bear might inspect a koala.
‘So, what’s with the limp, Keys?’ The words had the lilt of being spoken with a smile, by a man revelling in another’s unease.
‘Just a stone in my shoe.’
‘Looks quite painful,’ he said, ‘why don’t you take it out?’ The bear-man grinned.
‘I…I just want to go inside, please,’ I stammered like the child I was. Only nineteen and limping into a private game with my life savings in my pocket. I can’t deny that it was a hell of a rush. Adrenaline, anxiety, expectation: a gamblers cocktail, aperitif to catastrophe.
I guess the bouncer eventually took pity on me and buzzed me inside without further comment. I passed through a long corridor where another pair of hulking bouncers inspected my ID before pushing open the double doors.
I had heard rumours of the Turner Club’s lavish interior, but to a relative greenhorn like me, the place was some kind of paradise. The hubbub of voices and the clack of clay chips; the lavish, plush floor, meticulously clean; the crystal chandeliers lined the high ceiling, shedding iridescent light over the numerous tables of green, purple and red felt. I felt like I’d made it. Like everything I’d been yearning for was finally within reach.
Gorgeous women in short skirts and coloured neck scarves were perusing the tables, taking drinks orders with well- practised coyness. One caught my eye as she walked past carrying a tray of cocktails, a callipygian brunette with long legs. I must have been staring, because she pouted at me and winked.
‘Hello, handsome.’ Her voice was a dulcet as her drinks were dolce, but nonetheless my mind spun. If word around town was to be believed, gambling was not the only thing money could buy in the Turner Club.
I spotted the bar and sidled over, trying my best to appear as though I was not a man with a stone the size of a marble stuck in his shoe.
The barman was a short man, busy mixing a drink. I announced myself and asked where I might find Roman Hoss, my friend by whose invite I was present. Before the man could reply I felt a firm hand clap me on the shoulder. My blood ran cold thinking it was the bouncer from outside back to toy with me.
‘Sebastian, I presume!’ said a jolly voice. It was Michael Turner Jr., a man of legend and leisure, proprietor of the pleasure dome. ‘Roman has told me so much about you. Come, follow me to the private card room, the game will begin in few minutes.’ He signalled the barman, who instantly dropped what he was doing. ‘Send Alyssa with the drinks, John.’
He motioned me along pleasantly and I stammered some sort of formal introduction and thanked him for the invitation.
‘Oh, you are very welcome, Mr Keys. Roman speaks very highly of you, both as a card player and as a friend. He tells me you two grew up together, is that correct?’
We talked amiably as we weaved our way through a sea of business men and degenerates alike, many of whom stopped to shake Turner’s hand.
Turner was a man of great intrigue to the general public. Undoubtedly one of the richest men in the city, he enjoyed the finer things in life and they enjoyed him. Scandals followed him like sharks follow the scent of blood. He had inherited his father’s business empire – primarily in metalwork – at a young age after Turner Sr. passed away suddenly from a stroke. Like most young men, he handled instantaneous wealth very poorly. However, unlike them he was supported by the old-guard of his father’s boardroom, men of considerable business acumen who, despite disliking him greatly, could not bear to see the son of their beloved leader drive the company into the dirt.
But Turner Jr. was middle aged now and his party lifestyle was showing no signs of stopping. The grapevine had in that the death of the last of his father’s advisers several months ago heralded the haemorrhaging of Turner’s considerable fortune, but if that was true then Turner didn’t show it. Don’t feel too bad for him; I was to get my share of that haemorrhaging.
Turner was sporting a ridiculous moustache which, as he was proud to reiterate and take sole credit for, was coming back into fashion within the city’s upper class. I was not upper class, nor could I have grown a moustache if I’d tried. He twiddled it in my face absentmindedly now, hand on my shoulder as he guided me towards yet another door, this one guarded by a smiling middle aged man in a tuxedo. This was the big one. Something you quickly realise when you’re dealing with large sums of money is that it isn’t protected by ogre-like, sardonic men in fur jackets, but by men in suits with easy smiles.
Inside was a smaller room, with a large oblong table of crimson felt. Six men were seated, of whom I recognised none but Roman, who smiled at me broadly. No doubt he could see how on edge I was. The doors were closed behind us and suddenly the hubbub of the bustling club was eliminated entirely. Ice clinked in tall glasses.
‘Gentleman, may I present Sebastian Keys,’ Turner raised his hand from my shoulder for the briefest moments before clapping it down again. ‘He’s an old friend of Roman here’s.’
‘Hello everyone,’ I said, somewhat sheepishly. I was never much of a talker. There was a brief pause, as if the company of middle aged men expected me to say something about myself, as if this were some form of upper class a group therapy meeting. Hello, my name is Sebastian, and I am here to take your money. But then, maybe this game was merely catharsis to these men; they sure as hell weren’t here to make money.
‘Well sit down Michael, let’s go, let’s go!’ said one of the men, jovial and impatient.
‘Don’t be in such a hurry to lose your money, Marcus,’ Turner jabbed back. And then the game was underway. Those already at the table played a few hands, whilst I exchanged my cash for chips.
This was a big moment for me, but it was imperative, both from a social and strategic standpoint, that they did not know that I was buying in with all the money I had. Even Roman did not know. To be honest, I doubt he would have invited me if he had known. It was but a small sum to these men – each of them, bar Roman, sat with at least triple my stake in front of them – but to me it was huge. I won’t say the exact amount for the sake of my dignity, but let us just say that the minimum bet in this game was more than a week’s wages.
Now, I was by no means a professional card sharp, far from it. It’s true that I played a lot and that the majority of my income came from controlled and calculated gambling, rather than my poorly paid government job. But I certainly never considered it a career. It was merely a hobby at which I had quickly become proficient. I studied the game and I studied its players. One might say that I was good at observing people and patterns. That was how you got the edge in this game; you saw things that others didn’t. Correlation in their betting strategies, gaps in their logic, physical tells. Like all good strategy games, it was elegant in its simplicity and devious in its complexities. I’ll spare you the details. In short, players were each dealt a hand and wagered on whose hand was best. Enough luck to make it exciting; enough skill to let each man believe he was the best in the world. Throw in some money and you have a very fun game.
Of course, the question on your mind is why, if I was making such good money playing cards on the side of my regular job, did I feel the need to play in this particular game, with all the money to my name? Of course there was a myriad of factors; at least, that’s what I tell myself. Afterwards, sobbing with rage and frustration in a dark alleyway I cursed them all through the tears, even Roman, hissing ‘It meant nothing to them! They took everything from me and it meant nothing to them!’ And that was why I had to play. They didn’t care about the money and I did.
I got off to a smooth start and began to watch my chip stacks swell around me. Within half hour I had amassed more money that I could earn in a year. Roman was watching me with the smallest hint of a smile. My hands shook slightly as I corralled the last of my most recent winnings, though through nerves of excitement I did not know.
‘Nervous, kid?’ said one the men, peering round the dealer to eyeball me.
‘No, no,’ I stumbled, ‘I…I just need a drink that’s all.’
‘Too right!’ said another man, waving an empty glass. ‘Where they hell is Alyssa, Mike?’
‘Apologies gentleman,’ said Turner with typical pomp and flourish. Alyssa was radioed for and in only a few minutes a side door was pushed open and a young woman appeared holding a tray containing fluted glasses and champagne.
‘Alyssa, my dear, you’re quite late,’ said Turner. He was the kind of man who would relish an opportunity to scold his subordinates in front of others.
‘I’m very sorry, sir,’ she said, quickly setting down the glasses, ‘may I serve?’ Her face was rosy with embarrassment.
‘Quickly, please.’ A new hand was being dealt and the attention was at once off the waitress. But not mine.
She was a pretty girl, around my own age, with long blond hair tied back in a ponytail. She had a serious face, with stunning bright eyes and I longed to see her smile. She wore a tight black dress which clung like satin to close to her body. She was short, and her legs, while attractive, were not receiving much assistance from her modest stilettos.
‘Action’s on you, sir,’ said the dealer and I broke from my trance to see the whole table looking at me expectantly. I mumbled intelligibly, looked at my poor collection of cards and pitched them into the middle. The dealer palmed them neatly into a pile with the other folded cards and the game continued. When I looked up again Alyssa was gone and I was disappointed.
‘Champagne, sir?’ came a soft voice, not quite yet comfortable with the words it was speaking, and there she was at my shoulder.
‘Yes, thank you,’ I said. I had not intended to drink on this outing, in order to retain focus, but it was, after all, my fault that Alyssa had been called for. As she leaned over me her white neck scarf brushed gently against my face. I looked up at her face, so close to mine. Her eyes were slightly glassy and her cheeks were flushed but not through embarrassment. I was intrigued, by this soulful girl. But I was also the last to be served.
‘Will that be all, gentleman?’ Alyssa asked the table.
‘Yes, yes, yes…’ Turner waved her away, deep in thought facing a bet by the man named Marcus. Alyssa bowed slightly to no one in particular and left the way she had entered. My eyes drank her in with ever clack of her heels.
Turner had won the pot and was raking in the chips with his fingers, a huge grin on his face. Like I sixth sense, I suddenly felt his gaze on me, heavy and intense.
‘Lovely, isn’t she? Turner said, the grin never leaving his face, but I felt the icy jab of his words. It was a statement, not a question. Alyssa was untouchable. I did not know whether to acquiesce or remain silent, and simply sat there with the look of a shocked toddler.
‘Probably the first time a girl’s bought him a drink,’ said Roman quietly, but loud enough to send the table into a bought of haughty laughter. Roman was a social surgeon and had his finger on the pulse of every situation.
Hours passed and my chips steadily accumulated. From time to time, Alyssa appeared with more champagne. The mood quickly surged from amicable to raucous as the alcohol seeped into the game. The businessmen’s focus deteriorated and it became easier still to take their money. I felt alive, at home.
I was in heaven.
I cannot be sure exactly when I began to lose. I would like to say I was simply unlucky, distracted by a beautiful girl and tipsy on fine drink. But the truth is that my discipline faded. I lost a few hands in a row – not a big deal, I was still sitting with an obscene amount of profit in front of me – but for some reason I mourned those chips. I felt wronged somehow by their loss, as if being the better player entitled me to them. I began to take unnecessary risks to win them back and with every further loss my frustration grew like a cancer.
In the early hours of the morning, my chip stack, for the first time all night, fell below its initial sum. I felt the cold twist in my stomach of guilt and fear. The buzz from the champagne died instantaneously as I realised I was on the precipice of disaster.
But I couldn’t stop. Hand after hand my chips, my life, was dragged away from me as the some of the richest idiots in the world drank and guffawed. Soon all sensation ceased. For the last hour I was numb and saw nothing. I don’t remember Roman staring at me intently. Nor did I notice Alyssa serving yet more drinks. I sat as if my soul had left my body.
‘All-in,’ I said, pushing the last of my chips into the middle with bleary eyes. There was only Roman and a drunk, round man named Porter. My hand was no good, and I knew it. I just couldn’t take it anymore. Roman sat like a golem with his cards resting in front of him, neat and square against the table edge. His eyes studied me with an ambiguous intensity. Pity, maybe. Perhaps contempt.
He pitched his cards gracefully into the middle. I asked him once if he folded the winner. He simply smiled. Not that it mattered.
‘I call, I call!’ exclaimed Porter, flushed from the alcohol. He flipped his hand and the dealer announced it. I groaned inwardly. My hand was a big underdog, but there were still one community card to be dealt. It was a long shot but I was not dead yet. My hands balled into fists and I felt my blood pound against my temples.
The dealer slowly discarded the top card of the deck, as was customary, pushing it under the pile of chips in the middle. The whole table fell silent. No more laughter. Only expectation.
He drew out the card which was to decide my fate, sliding it face down into the centre of the table. It took its place beside the other community cards, the last of a murderer’s row. Without ceremony the dealer flipped the card and drove the nail into my coffin.
Porter erupted with elation, knocking over Roman’s drink which was on the table next to him. The dealer pushed him the last of my life savings while he apologised profusely to Roman, who took no offense. A waitress was called to clean the sticky champagne from the table. Within minutes the table was clean and the commotion was over. My glazed expression never changed.
‘More chips, sir?’ asked the dealer. I looked up at him without comprehension.
‘C’mon Keys,’ piped up Marcus, ‘how much are you back in for?’
‘No, I…I really have to leave. I’m sorry.’
‘Quite right,’ said Turner, ‘it’s getting late gentlemen.’ He yawned for dramatic effect and like that the game was over. And so was my life as I knew it.
The stone was still in my shoe as I left the building, but I didn’t care. The hulk of a bouncer paid me no attention. I yearned for him to make a snide comment. I wanted to fight, to be stamped into the dirt like I deserved. Perhaps the bastard knew it too and standing motionless was his final insult. Bastard.
I crossed the road, a dead man walking. The brisk night air shocked my system and suddenly my stomach delivered the punishment I desired. I ducked into the nearest alleyway and was violently sick. Slumped down against the wall the tears finally came, bitter and hot. Rage overwhelmed me. I tore off my shoe and hurled it, deep into the abyssal darkness. It was as though hours passed there, in the pit of despair, as I cried and cursed and vomited at my misfortune. I willed myself to be swallowed by the shadows.
But the clicking of familiar heels approaching brought me back from the brink.
‘Who’s there?’ said a familiar voice. Her form was silhouetted at the edge of the alleyway, black against streetlight-orange. I have always wondered why she stopped. I sure as hell wouldn’t have stopped if I had heard strange noises coming from an alleyway in the early hours of the morning. If I had any faith left in luck after that night I might have called it serendipity.
‘Mr Keys, is that you?’ She was peering into the gloom fearfully, clutching some kind of handbag in front of her. I didn’t know whether to show myself or slink back into the darkness and hide myself away. I wiped the tears from my face.
‘Hello, Alyssa,’ I said, stepping out of the darkness and contorting my face into what I hoped was a smile.
‘Mr Keys! What’s happened to you?’ She looked at my dishevelled appearance. ‘Have you been mugged?!’
‘No, no. I’m fine.’ My voice cracked horribly. With my clothes in disarray and my eyes red and puffy I must have looked like a deadbeat hopped up on amphetamines.
‘Are you sure?’ She came towards me, perplexed, and placed a hand on my arm. It’s strange how something so simple can have such great effect. I guess real human compassion has a way of sheering through deception. The tears began anew, now tinged with a new emotion: shame.
I don’t really remember much of what I said to her. I probably told her the truth. I remember crying into her shoulder and dampening her pristine scarf. I told her my life was over, that all was lost. And she just held me. Said nothing and held me as a cried. A broke man on the street with one shoe.
Through bleary eyes I saw Roman’s car – a luxury in this neighbourhood – turn the corner. I broke away from Alyssa and wiped my eyes.
‘Don’t tell Roman! Please, don’t tell Roman!’ I was all of a sudden very aware of my missing shoe. The car pulled up quietly and deliberately. Roman stepped out and looked me up and down.
‘Bastian, what happened to you?’
‘Er, Roman, I –’
‘He’s been mugged, Mr Hoss. He’s a bit shook up but he’s not hurt,’ said Alyssa. Roman’s granite-grey eyes looked at Alyssa as if seeing her for the first time. Roman saw everything.
‘Have you called the police?’
‘No, Roman. I lost everything,’ I said, the words were still raw in my mouth. ‘Please…I just want to go home.’
Roman gave Alyssa a lift to her apartment building, in spite of her protests.
We drove in silence, Roman up front, with Alyssa and me in the back. The elephant in the room enveloped the little interior, suffocating any attempt at conversation.
Alyssa lived in the Echo Multiplex, not far from the Turner Club; a scummy high-rise building of cracking white paint and cracking personalities. I knew the building well from my childhood. My father used to drink with a tall, fat man on the 6th floor and would bring my brother Finn and me along when my mother was working the late shift. I knew the man as ‘Stiff Billy’, or simply ‘Stiff’. My father told us he was called that because he drunk nothing but alcohol. The two of them would sit for hours watching TV and drinking spirits from the bottle, whilst Finn and I played in the filth that was his apartment. It was on the floor his dank living room that I first learned to play cards.
We parked right outside the front entrance.
‘Look after yourself, Mr Keys,’ Alyssa said, placing her hand on my arm again. She had let her hair down, golden in the moonlight. I mouthed my thanks and looked into her eyes. She smiled, and for but a brief moment the weight of the world was lifted from my shoulders.
‘Thank you for the lift, Mr Hoss.’
‘My pleasure, Alyssa. Goodnight.’