The big gray Olds the dentist drove was so new he hadn’t got around to stripping the plastic film off the rear seats. The game was about half a mile from the drugstore he picked me up at and he chattered for the full distance, giving me a quick briefing on the game and the players. I didn’t figure to need it but I let the information soak in for future reference.
There were two doctors, an insurance man, a CPA, Murray Rogers and Sy Daniels and me. Rogers and the accountant—a guy named Ed Hart—were the strong players, according to Daniels. The insurance man played a good game but gave his hands away, tightening up when he held good stuff and relaxing on a bluff. One of the doctors—either the internist or the eye man, it was hard to keep them straight—played too many hands and chased straights and flushes all night long.
I asked Daniels about his own game.
"About average," he said. "I win sometimes and I lose other times. Anything else you want to know?"
"Nothing I can think of," I laughed. "It doesn’t make a hell of a lot of difference, Sy. I’ll forget everything you told me the minute I sit down at the table. That’s my trouble—I get too much kick out of the game to concentrate on it."
"Well, it’s no fun if you have to work too hard at it."
"That’s it," I said. "When my luck runs good I win money. When it turns sour I lose. It’s more a question of luck than anything else." And luck has about as much to do with poker as skill has with a crap game.
Daniels took a left turn, letting the power steering do all the work. He offered me a cigarette and I shook my head and lighted one of my own. Then he pulled the Olds over to the curb, leaned on the power brakes, parked the car. We walked a few doors down the street to an all-brick ranch set on a big lot. The grass had a fresh crew cut and the hedges were planted in toy evergreens. The doorbell played My Dog Has Fleas when Daniels gave it a jab. The tune was laboring through the second chorus when Murray Rogers opened the door.
"You boys are late," he rumbled. "Let’s get rolling, team."
He was a big man with a heavy head and a thick neck. His hair was iron gray and he had a full mustache the same color. He was wearing gray flannel slacks and a plaid shirt open at the throat, a short-sleeved thing that let you see how muscular his arms were. He didn’t look like a tax lawyer. He looked more like somebody who owned a hunting lodge, something like that.
We followed him through a built-in chrome-plated kitchen and down a flight of stairs to what they call the family room in the real estate ads. The vinyl tile on the floor was patterned to resemble parquet. The panelling was knotty cedar and the ceiling beams were exposed in mock-Colonial. Seven folding chairs crouched around an octagonal poker table, one of those functional models with wells for chips and circular spaces for drinks. Four of the chairs were occupied. The men in them stood up, Sy introduced me, and we shook hands all around.
"Sy was telling me about your accident," Murray Rogers said. "It sounded like one hell of a shakeup."
"It wasn’t a picnic."
"Sounds as though you were lucky to get out of it alive."
"I was," I said. "I blew a front tire at seventy and shot off the road. I thought the car was going to flip, but it didn’t. I chopped a pair of teeth on the steering wheel and caught a few body bruises. That was all."
"Lucky," the insurance man said. That was Ken Jameson.
Murray asked me what I was drinking. I said scotch would do fine. I sat down and started a fresh cigarette. Evidently Sy Daniels had filled everyone in on my cover story. I had been a plastic firm’s salesman in Chicago, my job had disappeared when the company had merged with a larger outfit, and I had been heading for New York to look for work when the car had done the shimmy-shake and had wound up off the road. It was an adequate front, explaining simultaneously why I didn’t have a car, why I wasn’t working, and why my teeth needed a repair job.
I took the drink from Murray and sipped good scotch. Ed Hart and Harold Barnes broke open two fresh decks of Bee cards and shuffled them up. Barnes was the internist, a gangling fellow with a weak chin and thick glasses. He shuffled a final time, then ran the cards around the table until Sy caught the first jack for the deal. I bought thirty dollars worth of chips from Murray Rogers. Sy tossed his half-buck ante into the middle and we started to play. He dealt draw poker, jacks or better, and Lou Holman opened under the gun. Holman was the oculist. I caught a bust and folded before the draw: Barnes stuck around to buy one card to an open straight and picked up the pot.
I took things slow for the first half hour, laying back and getting a line on the game. It wasn’t quite as friendly as Sy had made it sound. Poker never is. The object of the game is winning money, and you can only win if somebody else loses. They played a sociable sort of game but nobody was giving anything away.
I picked off a pair of baby pots in the first few rounds. Then with about twenty minutes gone I folded early in a hand of seven-card stud and held back an ace before I pitched my hand into the discard. Two hands later I caught an ace for my hole card, covering the motion by reaching for a cigarette with my free hand. I was sitting with the empty chair on my left and that made the catch a little simpler.
I bet half a buck on the ace and got three callers. On the second round I picked up a jack and Lou Holman paired his queen. He bet a buck on the queens and Ed Hart bumped a buck with a king and a five showing. I called. Barnes folded.
Everyone got garbage on the third round. Holman checked, Hart bet a buck and I raised him. Holman made a bad call—either Hart or I had to be telling the truth, and he was chasing aces or kings or both with his pair of queens. He folded on the last round and my wired aces picked up the pot when Hart called my last bet. He had kings with no help for them. I pulled in the pot.
Ken Jameson started dealing a hand of draw, and I was on his left—I raked in the cards for the shuffle. It was easy to leave three sevens on the bottom of the deck, easy to let them stay there during the shuffle. I had a bust in the draw hand but I played it anyway, wound up with just as much of a bust and folded. Then I gave the cards to Jameson for the cut.
He cut the pack. I took a cigarette, lighted it. I picked up the top half of the deck and set it back on top of the bottom, nullifying the cut. By that time Jameson didn’t remember which way he cut them and nobody else was paying attention. I tossed in the ante and dealt seven-card stud, giving myself trip sevens of the bottom. On the sixth card I bought an outside pair and took the pot with sevens full over Lou Holman’s flush and Sy’s straight. It was a big one.
It looked like a nice evening.
I was busy losing a hand when I heard footsteps on the stairs and glanced up. I saw the legs first—long and slender, and a skirt ending at the knees. I folded my cards and had a look at the rest.
She wasn’t quite beautiful. The body was perfect, with hooker’s hips and queen-sized breasts and a belly that had just the right amount of bulge to it. The hair was the color of a chestnut when you pick the husk from it. She had the hair bound up in a French roll. It was stylish as hell, but you started imagining how this female was with her hair down and spread out over a white pillow.
The face was heart-shaped, with a pointed chin and wide-spaced eyes: Green eyes. There were little tension lines in the corners of those eyes, and there were matching lines around her mouth. Her mouth was a little too full and her nose was a little too long, and that’s why I said she wasn’t beautiful, exactly. But perfection always puts me off. There’s something dry and sterile about an utterly beautiful woman. This one didn’t put me off at all She kept me staring hard at her.
"Hello, Joyce," everybody said. She gave everybody a big smile and moved across the room toward us. I glanced at Rogers. He was watching his wife with that special expression a man has when he’s letting his friends survey a very desirable possession of his. She leaned over him, gave him a kiss on the side of his face. He put a hand on her hip and patted her.
"Sue just called," she said. "She’ll be at the sorority house until late. She has a test of some sort she’s cramming for."
"Jenny home yet?"
"She won’t be home for hours, Murray. Her date’s taking her to a dance and then to a party afterward." She squinted at his cards. "How are we doing?"
"Who’s winning the money?"
"Ed’s ahead," Rogers said. "And so is this son-of-a-gun Sy brought along. He plays a good game."
She regarded me. Her eyes seemed to smoke, or maybe I had too good an imagination.
"Beginner’s luck," I said.
"My husband’s not much for social graces," she said to me. "He hasn’t introduced us yet."
Murray laughed and introduced. She gave me a funny smile, then asked if anyone would mind if she watched a few hands. No one minded. She took the empty chair at my left. Somebody shuffled the cards and started dealing. Murray gave Joyce a cigarette. She let me light it for her, took a long drag, set the cigarette down in the ashtray. The filter tip was red from her lipstick.
She stayed for two rounds. I dealt five-card stud on my deal, took a peek at the top card after the first round was dealt. I had a five up and a king in the hole, and the top card was a king. I called the bet, then dealt seconds to the four other players and saved the king myself. I brought an extra pair later in the hand and won a medium-sized pot.
She stubbed out her cigarette a few hands later. She stood up slowly, gracefully, walked around to Rogers and put her hand on his. Her fingers were long and slender.
"I’ll come down in a few hours," she said. "I’ll bring you boys something to eat."
He told her that was fine. She turned to go upstairs and the game continued while I tried to figure out how a girl who couldn’t be more than thirty could have a daughter in college.
The answer wasn’t that hard to dope out. It came out by itself a little later. Joyce was Rogers’ second wife. The first Mrs. R. had died five or six years back and two years after that Rogers had married Joyce. He said something to the effect that she was a terrific mother to his kids, and I sat there and tried to make myself believe it. I couldn’t. The hips, the eyes, the walk—she suggested a lot of things, and maternity was not among them.
But she was only another broad and Rogers was only another mark contributing to the fund for the enrichment of William Maynard. Maybe she made me hate him a little, because after she hiked up the basement stairs I thought how unfair it was that a hefty old lawyer like Rogers should have something that nice while I spent my nights alone. A deal later I punished him, did it without making a nickel for myself in the bargain. I dealt him a pat straight and gave Ken Jameson a four-card flush. Jameson didn’t play cards like an insurance man. He stood heavy betting to buy a card to the flush, and I made sure I dealt him the card he needed. Murray lost heavy on that one.
She came downstairs an hour after that. It was around midnight, maybe a little after. The older daughter was home from the sorority house and she had already been downstairs to meet us and kiss Murray good night. Then Joyce appeared with a tray of sandwiches, ham and swiss on rye, and Murray took out bottles of Dutch beer from the bar refrigerator. I had a sandwich and a bottle of beer. They made a good combination.
Joyce Rogers sat in the odd chair again, relaxed in it like a cat in front of a fire. She asked who was winning and Murray laughed humorlessly.
"The rich get richer," he said, pointing at me. "And the poor get second-best hands."
"You’re winning, Bill?"
"I’ve been getting good cards," I said.
I was up close to two hundred by then. The game figured to be good for another yard, maybe more and maybe less. I didn’t want to push hard any more. It probably wouldn’t be necessary. When you move out in front of a game you have a psychological edge that amounts to almost as much of an advantage as a good false shuffle. The losers tend to follow your lead and fold when you push them. Nothing succeeds like success, and nobody wins like a winner.
But you get habits. Even honest players generally manage to peek at the bottom card on the deck when they’re dealing. I do it all the time, just automatically. So when I was dealing a hand and the bottom card gave me a full house, I dealt it to myself. It’s a little harder coming off the bottom than it is to deal seconds, but I had been doing it all night. I filled my boat and took the pot over three fives.
"Murray," she said, "you haven’t brought me flowers in the longest time."
"What brought that up?"
"Nothing," she said. "I was just thinking. I remember when I lived in New York a boy I was seeing brought met roses every day. He bought them for half a dollar from a dealer in the subway. They were the nicest roses."
Rogers laughed. "Well," he said, "the next time I’m in New York—"
"That’s right," she said softly. "It would have to wait until then, wouldn’t it? Because there aren’t any subways in this town, and it would be impossible to find a subway dealer here."
I dropped a whole stack of chips to the floor. It was just as well, because it gave me a chance to compose myself while I hunted around and picked them up. It would be impossible to find a subway dealer here. Her patter was just a load of nonsense unless you happened to know the language. Then it was right on the beam.
A subway dealer is the sharp’s term for a mechanic who can deal off the bottom of the deck, just as a man who can deal seconds is called a second dealer or a number-two man. So she was telling me plenty of things in a few meaningless sentences. She was saying that she had tipped to me, that she had seen the card scurry off the bottom of the deck just as cute as you please. And she was telling me that she knew the language, that she knew things about poker that you couldn’t find in Yardley’s book on the subject.
But she wasn’t telling tales. She was playing little games with me, sitting there at my left and watching me take her husband’s money away from him without a whisper. She wouldn’t dream of mentioning it to him. And she wouldn’t dream of letting me think she didn’t know about it. She had to put a small bug in my ear just to keep her hand in.
We broke at two-thirty. I cashed in three hundred ten dollars worth of chips and wound up a cool two hundred eighty dollars to the good. Ed Hart was up thirty or forty dollars. The other five men went for sixty to seventy bucks apiece. It was a hard hit but nothing harder than any of them could afford.
"Back next week, Bill?"
"I don’t know," I said. "I suppose I’ll be long gone by then. Now that Sy’s put my teeth back together, I ought to get on down to New York and see about setting up some job interviews."
"Be a shame to lose you," Lou Holman said. "We ought to get a chance at taking our money back."
"This isn’t a bad place to live," Rogers said. "It’s a good size for a city, big enough to be interesting and small enough to be fairly friendly. You don’t have any ties anywhere, do you?"
"Once," I said. "It didn’t work out." Which was true enough, and which was something I rarely talked about. Or thought about if I could avoid it.
"You could probably make a good connection here," Rogers resumed. "New York’s a fairly cold place, despite the florists my wife seems to be nostalgic about. There are some plastics outfits here—I don’t know much about them, but there’s probably somebody around who could use a good man."
"Don’t talk him into it," Harold Barnes said. "It’ll cost us money to keep him in town. He plays too strong a game."
"Hell," Murray said, "I just want a chance to get it back."
We had a laugh or two over that. I put my winnings in my wallet and Murray showed us to the door. Sy Daniels insisted on giving me a ride to the Panmore and I didn’t argue all that hard. He wanted to talk about poker but I switched the conversation around to Mrs. Murray Rogers. He drove through empty streets with a smelly cigarette in his mouth and he talked about her.
"She’s a lot of woman," he said. "That’s not hard to see, is it?"
I muttered something noncommittal.
"I’ll tell you," he said. "To be perfectly frank, I thought Murray was being a damned fool when he married her. He’s around fifty, you know, and she’s almost twenty years younger than he is. That’s a lot of distance. When a middle-aged man falls for a younger woman he can wind up looking like a jackass. Especially when the woman looks like Joyce does."
"But it’s working for him?"
Sy grinned. "He looks happy, doesn’t he? We all figured she was marrying him for his dough. He’s got a lot of it, Bill. A good tax man writes his own ticket these days and Murray is damned good. But you can’t ask for more devotion than that girl has shown him. She cooks for him, she doesn’t work overtime spending his money, she doesn’t play around. And she’s a pretty sweet girl. He was right and we were wrong, Bill. He got a good deal."
At the hotel Sy asked me himself if there were any chance I would stay in town for a while. I told him I didn’t honestly know one way or the other. If he had asked me that afternoon, I would have told him I’d be on the first plane to New York in the morning. But that was a long time ago.
I shook hands with him, thanked him for the game and for the ride. Once in my room, I counted my money, putting aside two yards in my hiding place in the dresser.
Then I undressed and stood under the shower, letting a stream of hot water soak some of the tension out of my body.
A long poker session exhausts anyone. If you play worth a damn you have your mind on every player, throughout every hand, and you wind up sitting in one position on a not-all-that-comfortable chair until your rear end aches just as much as your head does.
If you’re a mechanic, you wind up twice as exhausted. You don’t just have to play your cards. You have to make sure you obtain winning cards, and you have to watch out every second that nobody sees what you’re doing. I was dead and my nerves were on edge. The shower helped and, when I was finished with it, the bed had never seemed more comfortable.
Of, course I didn’t fall asleep right away. I lay under the covers in the dark room and listened to occasional traffic noises outside my window. And I thought about something lovely, something with green eyes and chestnut hair and a body that looked warm, inviting.
A pretty sweet girl—Sy Daniels had called her that. Also a girl who could spot a damned smooth bottom deal and identify it in card sharp’s code. Who the hell was she? What angle was she working?
I tossed the questions back and forth and made everything but answers. Then the questions faded slowly to black and I fell asleep.
Copyright © 1964 by Lawrence Block.