Authors: Robin Spano
Copyright © Robin Spano, 2011
Published by ECW Press
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416-694-3348 / [email protected]
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Death plays poker / Robin Spano.
Also issued as: 978-1-77090-086-8 (PDF); 978-1-55022-987-5 (PBK); 978-1-55022-994-3 (BOUND)
PS8637.P35D425 2011 C813’.6 C2011-902867-0
Cover and text design: Cyanotype
Production and typesetting: Troy Cunningham
The publication of
Death Plays Poker
has been generously supported by the Canada Council for the Arts which last year invested $20.1 million in writing and publishing throughout Canada, and by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario. We also acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund for our publishing activities, and the contribution of the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Book Publishing Tax Credit. The marketing of this book was made possible with the support of the Ontario Media Development Corporation.
Willard Oppal, the spotlight is on you. Or is that a reading lamp? In a faux antique armchair, in an old world hotel room, you’re flipping pages on your ebook reader as the wind howls wildly off the St. Lawrence River. You sip premium Scotch from the minibar. Why shouldn’t you drink the good stuff? The government is footing the bill.
Josie Carter is dead. Jimmy Streets is dead. And here you are, the hero of the RCMP, sneaking in to save the day.
There’s a knock on your door. You look through the peephole and smile, like a cat with a mouse he’s not quite ready to kill. You’re pretty sure this person is the Dealer. You’ve been working him, making him trust you. You gesture expansively to invite your new friend into the room.
It happens fast.
You’re pouring a drink for your guest into a cheap hotel tumbler when you feel a rope caress your pale, flabby throat. You move to push the rope away and it tightens. You twist to fight and you can’t. You’re locked into the Poker Choker’s expert grasp.
Zoom to the next morning: Canadian Classic Poker Tour, Casino de Montreal. The players have just been told about your death.
Elizabeth Ng smiles discreetly as a huge pot is raked her way. Later, in an interview, she’ll say that your murder terrifies her, that she’s thinking of leaving professional poker until the Choker is caught. At the moment, though, her hands are looking pretty damn steady.
Joe Mangan is wearing a curly red wig and a clown nose. As he tosses his cards into the muck, he thinks maybe at the break he should take off his costume and wear normal clothes out of respect. The thought passes quickly when he picks up his next hand and sees aces.
Mickey Mills mutters something approaching profanity. He’s careful — doesn’t want to get penalized by the ten-minute no-swearing rule. But he’s not angry about your death. Some kid has just made a terrible play that cost Mickey half of his chip stack.
George Bigelow sits in the spectator stands, laptop running as he takes it all in. He taps a finger to his lips, wondering: what happens to a dead man’s chips? Are they removed from play, or blinded off until there’s nothing left? He’ll need that information for his blog.
Fiona Gallagher flits around like a CNN announcer covering an earthquake. She’s interviewing players, commenting on the scene, and unlike Joe, she has already changed into elegant mourning garb. She tilts her microphone toward T-Bone Jones for his reaction to your death.
“Oppal was a cop,” T-Bone grunts. “How much do you miss a guy who rifles through your suitcase like he thinks he’s fucking God? Don’t put that in your stupid TV show, either.”
And now there are three. Isn’t that the magic number when you’re identifying a serial killer? Except it’s nearly two months later, and you’d think there would be cops crawling every corner of the scene.
They must be here. They must be hiding in plain sight.
Clare could beat aces. It was the flush she was worried about. She studied the old man across from her. “What do you have? Aces?”
“Nah, I don’t got aces,” the old man said, meaning,
Maybe I do, maybe I don’t.
Clare tried to find a clue on his face. Deep lines made his skin look more like leather than anything human. The eyes, of course, were blank.
“Raise.” Clare shoved some chips in forcefully. What she meant was
“Re-raise you all in.” The man touched the rim of his cowboy hat. A real tell, or a fake one? And how was Clare supposed to single out a killer in a room full of professional bluffers? “Go home, kid,” the old man said, meaning,
You’re out of your league in this card room.
But Clare wasn’t going home. She wasn’t going anywhere until she’d proven she could do this job. “Do I threaten you?” she asked.
The old man snorted and Clare thought she saw his nostrils flare. “Sure,” he said. “Kids like you threaten my game every day. You make it so profitable I get lazy and forget how to take on real competition.”
Clare drummed her fingers on the black table felt. If she called the bet and lost, she’d be out of the game. She could already hear Sergeant Cloutier’s scorn as he pulled her off the case and sent her home to dreary beat work chasing graffiti artists and bicycle thieves in Toronto.
But she couldn’t keep folding either. This man had been bullying her — or bullying Tiffany James, Clare’s fancy new cover character — all day. He couldn’t have the best hand every time. And the nostril flare — that had to be involuntary, right?
“Call.” Clare pushed the rest of her chips past the bet line. She could feel her hands trembling. The chip stack nearly toppled on its way into the pot.
The old man squinted at her. “You got something wrong with your brain? Unless you got a flush, Princess — which you shouldn’t, the way you’ve been betting this hand — that was an easy fold.”
“The bets have been made,” the dealer said. “Mr. Jones, please show your cards.”
The old man flipped his cards over, muttering, “Trip kings.”
“Straight.” Clare could hardly believe it. She’d just conquered T-Bone Jones in a battle of wits. She set to work organizing her new larger chip stack, and let out her breath with relief.
The old man peered at her. “That your daddy’s cash you’re burning?”
“No.” Clare faked indignation as she examined the manicure she’d been given the previous morning. It felt funny on her hands — she was so used to chipped nails with motor grease riding the crescents. “Every penny I spend is from my own trust fund.”
“Well, then.” T-Bone’s eyebrows lifted, and Clare wondered why he didn’t lick his chops with greed. “Let me help separate you from it.”
Clare’s heart was still thumping, but she gave him the coolest grin she could muster. “You just tried to take my money; I took yours instead, remember?”
“I’m not talking about some piss-ass tournament chip stack.” T-Bone’s lips curled into a sneer. “I’m talking about putting your money where your mouth is. In a cash game tonight.”
Shit. Clare had just told this guy she was loaded, but before she could say yes to a cash game, she would have to get the funds approved from her handler. “I don’t think I’m ready for a side game. I want to get my legs in this tournament first.”
T-Bone narrowed his eyes. “You got a big trust fund for gambling, but you won’t bring a few grand to a side game?”
Yeah. The guy made a good point. “I’m not gambling.” Clare tried to inject a haughty tone into her voice. “I’ve been reading tons of theory, and this poker tour is a solid investment. I think it’s smarter than playing the stock market, given the state of the global economy.”
“It’s not an investment if you can’t play the game.”
“I learn fast.” Clare met his eye, with maybe more Clare than Tiffany. “Tell you what: if I cash in this tournament I’ll play in a side game in Vancouver.”
“Just play with us,” Joe Mangan said from down the table. Clare recognized him from
, though his frosted tips and smooth skin were well hidden behind a white hockey mask. To complete the ensemble, Joe wore an L.A. Kings shirt with the number 99. “What’s a few grand from your trust fund?”
Clare flicked her wrist dismissively, flashing a sparkly pink watch that cost what she made in a month. Good thing the
was footing the bill for her wardrobe. “If I want to give money away, I know more worthy charities than you guys.”
Joe raised his eyebrows and the mask shifted upward on his face. “Says the girl with the Piaget on her wrist. You’re not giving the money away if you have a good time playing. You’re buying entertainment.”
“A ‘good time’ is a shopping trip to Paris.” Clare wrinkled her nose and tried to look disdainful. “My time spent here is work.”
She didn’t want to alienate herself, but Clare could not afford to seem overly ingratiating. Willard Oppal had been made and killed before his handlers had even seen it coming. Clare had to play it cool, like she could take or leave the players’ friendship.
“That’s the right attitude, kid,” said Mickey Mills, whom Clare also recognized from
. Like Joe, Mickey had an average height and a stocky build. Unlike Joe, he was wearing dress pants and a pressed shirt. And Mickey was in his sixties — nearly double Joe’s age. “Don’t let these no-lifes talk you out of your money. You can dress ’em up and stick ’em on
, but that don’t change their basic nature. Everyone’s a hustler here. You want to survive, you gotta learn to hustle back.”
“And let me guess,” Clare said, rolling her eyes, “you’re just the man to teach me.”
“Nah, I’m a hustler, too.” Mickey tipped a small plastic peanut bag so five or six nuts fell into his hand. “But at least I say so up front.”