Thursday, May 30, 2013

Stiff Hand, Part 1

The four men sat fanned out around the blackjack table. At the far right, Antony Alderton was hunched over, his face drawn, sweat beading on his brow. He was a heavy-set man, his suit ill-fitting, as though it had been tailored for a more slender man. Nervously, he moved the cards in his hand, exchanging the position of his cards before returning them to their original order. To his right sat a highball glass, nearly empty. In contrast, in the next seat over, Barney Elwood looked impossibly fresh, his evening jacket as freshly-pressed as it had been hours before. He twirled his waxed mustache idly as he held his cards absolutely still with his other hand. He, too, had a highball glass next to him, but the drink had hardly been touched, condensation beading along the outer edge of the glass and trickling down the side. At Barney's left was Carl Fursey, who had loosened his tie and clutched his whisky glass as a talisman, though he sipped from it only occasionally. Carl had shaved before leaving his house for the casino, but still had a dark shadow of growth on his face. He wore cufflinks with his initials on them, and would invariably shoot his cuffs before making a big bet. The final player, on the left, was Jeremy Fallon. He had the air of someone out of his element, and played his cards nervously. Luck was with him that night, however, and the pile of chips in front of him had grown considerably over the evening. Like the others, he had a highball glass next to him, and he would tap the edge of the glass with a fingernail as he thought about his next move. He also had the bad habit of touching his fingers to his lips before receiving his cards, then wiping his hands on his trousers. Their dealer that night was Morris Skelton, a handsome man in his 30s, dressed in a colorful vest and matching bow tie over a white dress shirt, and an elegant pair of white gloves. He was the casino's top blackjack dealer, and he kept the game moving crisply. In the corner stood Jack Newport, the young barman, a drinks trolley next to him, waiting for one of the players to signal to him. Although the trolley contained a wide selection of bottles, all four players had ordered the same drink: whisky and soda. None had ordered a refill. Jack stifled a yawn as he watched the game progress.

Morris broke open a new deck of cards, shuffled, and dealt. Antony received a jack, Barney a nine, Carl another nine, and Jeremy accepted a trey. The first dealer card was a king. Morris dealt the next round: a seven to Antony, yet another nine to Barney, an ace to Carl, while Jeremy added a queen to his hand. In the game's lingo, he had a "stiff hand" - a two-card total between 12 and 16, too low to stand but one that can go over 21 with another card. Morris looked at the players. Antony defied the odds and signaled a hit, then gulped the last of his drink. He took a deuce and stood. Barney also chose not to play the odds and hit, but his third card was a six, for a 24 and a bust. Carl stood on his 20. Jeremy looked at his 13 with disgust before signaling for another card. A ten, for 23 and another bust. Jeremy shook his head sadly. Morris dealt himself his second dealer card - an eight, for a total of 18. By rule, he stood. He paid out Antony's 19 and Carl's 20, and collected the chips from the two losing hands.

Another shuffle. Before Morris could deal out the next hands, however, Jeremy Fallon stood, clutching his chest, his face a rictus of agony. "Mr. Fallon, are you feeling ill?" Morris asked. Jeremy made no reply, merely toppling forward, sending chips flying from the felt table top, before he collapsed to the ground. The remaining players, Morris, and Jack all ran to him. Antony tapped his face a few times, experimentally, but got no reaction. Barney said, "He looks dead." Morris said, "I need to call my boss. Boy, oh boy, I'm going to be in trouble." Carl said, "Before you call your boss, you need to ring the police. I suggest everyone step away from the body and make sure not to touch anything."

"Are you mad?" said Barney "The man had a heart attack. Couldn't take the strain of the game, I suppose. There's no need to involve the police in this."

Antony replied, "No, Carl is right. The police will want to examine the scene and the body, and we won't do ourselves any favors if we don't call immediately and leave the scene as it is." He gratefully accepted another whisky and soda from Jack and drained half the glass immediately.

No comments: