Just one more look… One more look and it’s all over.
Three players were still alive. A smartly dressed man whose name was Brown had just over ten thousand pounds left on the table. The chip leader was a man named Shields, who was studiously rearranging a pile of plastic tokens worth in excess of twenty-four thousand pounds. Palmer himself was carrying just over sixteen thousand pounds; his brain felt like someone had stuck a rusty bread knife though it.
Keep it together, Tommy boy… One more look and you’re almost there.
The pain was beginning to overwhelm Palmer. He was finding it difficult to think. His cards faded in and out of focus. The others in the room regarded the stranger in their midst with suspicion and bewilderment. They didn’t know what to make of Palmer, with his fucked up face and his strange, jerky way of laying down his cards. They didn’t trust him and their patience was running out fast.
Keep it together.
“Look friend… Do you have any fucking intention of playing your hand?” Brown had been threatening to turn nasty all night.
Palmer struggled to respond. “I can’t… I can’t…”
“Can’t what?” interrupted Shields. “Are you sick or something?”
“I can’t… I need a moment to… To… Think.”
“Jesus!” exclaimed Brown. “I can’t be doing with this. I’m a fucking pro. Make a fucking decision won’t you!”
“Mr Brown,” a familiar voice called out wearily over the PA system. “Let’s try and behave like gentlemen shall we?”
Brown looked up guiltily. “I’m sorry, Mr. Conn,” he said finally. “Yes… Yes… You’re right… It’s just that this idiot is taking so long…”
“I would remind you, Mr Shields, that there is a time limit of eight minutes per play. As such Mr Palmer here still has just under two minutes left in which to place his bet.”
Two minutes. Palmer had been holding off for as long as possible, naively hoping that his superficial understanding of the game’s tactics might somehow pull him through. He’d already been forced to look a number of times, all at crucial points in the game. He was rapidly approaching his limit. Palmer was pretty sure he could manage one more look, possibly two if he really had to. But anything else was out of the question. If he didn’t do it now he never would.
“You have one minute left, Mr. Palmer,” advised the voice from the loudspeaker.
Palmer gave a grimace and looked.
Brown was holding a pair of twos and a king. Palmer concentrated for a split second longer and caught that Shields was holding two nines and a jack. He also unexpectedly caught that Shields was not his opponent’s real name. Palmer pulled back and was immediately hit by a wave of nausea; this was mixed with a feeling of extreme relief. His sixes put him ahead. Now was the time: “All in,” Palmer announced, climbing shakily to his feet and pushing his pile of chips into the centre of the table. Sweat poured down his scarred forehead.
The other two players both looked up in surprise for a brief moment and then quickly returned to their cards and affected an air of casual disinterest. But the damage had been done. Palmer had suddenly turned a nondescript play into a matter of life and death. Now it was his turn to wait.
“Who is this guy? He plays like a fucking lunatic,” said Harry Conn. Conn was a large man with a broad back and deep set intelligent eyes. He was watching the game in an upstairs room on CCTV. “And what’s with those scars?”
“They call him Scarface – like in the Al Pacino movie,” answered Vincent Drego. Drego had just returned from a long telephone conversation with Tony Vance from the Palomar Club. “He’s a friend of Aiden Jefferies.”
“Jeffries?” said Conn. “What’s he got to do with that loser?”
“Jeffries made the introduction. Apparently this guy just appears every couple of months or so. He don’t do the pro circuit. He just turns up and plays and then disappears when it’s over.”
“What’s his form like?”
“That’s the thing… According to Tony Vance, this guy never loses. He plays like a fucking amateur but he always wins.”
Conn put a meaty hand to his brow and stared darkly into the distance. “And he thinks he can just waltz into my club and pull a scam? Who the fuck does he think he’s dealing with? He’s making a big mistake. A big fucking mistake.”
“That’s another thing, Harry. This guy ain’t operating no scam. Vance said he’d been checked out three or four times. It’s hard to believe it but he’s clean.”
“Nobody plays poker like that and expects to win. He must be doing something we can’t see. Watch him closely, Vince, I’m going downstairs.”
Keep cool, Tommy. Keep cool… Almost there.
Brown and Shields were both on their feet now. All three players were standing over the table watching intently as the croupier turned over the cards. For a moment there was silence as the information sank in. Then Shields turned slowly towards Palmer. “You did good,” he said, unable to conceal his disappointment. “I’ve been playing for more than twenty years and I’ve never seen anyone bet so big on a pair of sixes… You did good.”
Palmer nodded his head at the reluctant compliment but said nothing.
Brown was less magnanimous. “I hope you caught that, Mr. Conn,” he said, turning towards the surveillance camera hanging over the table. “This guy is a fucking cheat.”
Though the pain Palmer could hardly hear the other man’s voice. He cupped his forehead in his hands and tried to pull himself together. He could go home now. Surely he could go home.
“Hey! Are you listening to me, you fucking freak?” said Brown. “I just called you a cheat. There’s no way anyone would bet so big on a pair of fucking sixes.”
“Mr Shields,” said Harry Conn, walking into the room. “I’d respectfully remind you that I do not tolerate cheating in my club. When you accuse a player of cheating in my club you also accuse me of cheating.”
Shields ran his eyes up and down Conn’s not inconsiderable bulk. “I’m sorry Mr. Conn,” he said, finally. “I didn’t hear you come in…”
“Apology accepted, Mr. Shields,” replied Conn, smiling pleasantly.
“…It’s just that this fucking freak has to be doing something. I mean, let’s not kid each other – we all know that, don’t we?”
“Let’s make this a final warning, shall we?” replied Conn with a sigh. “Let’s shake Mr. Palmer’s hand like gentlemen and collect our coats.”
For a moment Shields seemed to be on the verge of saying something more. But he held on to his frustration and grudgingly did as he was ordered, moving his hand out towards Tom Palmer. “You just took 25k from me tonight,” he said, as Palmer weakly returned the handshake. “Let’s hope that it won’t be too long before you give me the opportunity to win my money back.”
“Sure… Yes… Sure…” mumbled Palmer, not really understanding what the other man was saying to him.
“That’s very good Mr. Shields,” said Conn. “Nice and civilised. Now, perhaps Mr. Palmer would like to join me at my table for a celebratory glass of champagne. He looks as if he could do with one.”
“First things first, Mr. Palmer,” said Conn, able for the first time to get a close up view of the stranger’s badly scarred face. “The house takes five per cent. You know the rules. That’s two-and-a-half thousand you owe me. You can give it to my associate here, Mr. Drego, when you leave.”
“Yes… Okay…” said Palmer, still struggling to hold off the pain.
Shields and Brown had now left the building, as had the croupier and the other men who had many hours earlier paid £5000 each to enter the card game. Only three men remained: Conn, his sidekick Drego and the shaking figure of Tom Palmer. Outside the club, the sun was rising.
“Not thirsty?” asked Conn, gesturing towards Palmer’s untouched glass.
“I… I… Don’t drink…” said Palmer.
“You don’t look well,” said Conn.
“Headache…” said Palmer. “I need to go home…”
“Ah… Home… Yes, I’m glad you brought that up,” smiled Conn. “I’ve actually given this matter some thought and I’ve decided that on this occasion I’m going to let you leave with all your fingers intact.”
Palmer heard that one alright. Suddenly the pain in his head subsided and he stared nervously at his host.
“I’m a fair minded person and as such I’m prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt. You understand, when I see a poker player play like a fucking loser yet still manage to go home with everybody’s money I start to smell a rat.
“In your case, though, I’m prepared to suspend my disbelief for the time being. My associate here, Mr. Drego has been reviewing the tapes of tonight’s little soirée and he assures me that nothing untoward happened on your part. This, I have to tell you, is fortunate for you because every instinct is telling me that you were cheating tonight. And I don’t like cheats. I don’t like cheats at all.
“I know you were cheating and you know you were cheating but fortunately for you I’m a great respecter of the law. I believe in innocent until proven guilty. This means that I’m allowing you to pick up your coat and leave my club. But a word of advice: if you ever feel the urge to indulge in a pleasant game of cards I’d think very carefully before you decide to come back here again. It’s not that you would be unwelcome, you understand – good poker players of any age, colour or creed are welcome at my club – it’s just that next time I might not feel so law abiding. I think you comprehend what I’m saying. Now go.”
Palmer gratefully rose to his feet and made for the exit. He patted his jacket pocket and felt the thick wad of £50 notes he had deposited there earlier. Tonight had been too close for comfort: it was only a matter of time before Palmer’s world was wrenched to pieces. He’d have to find another way.
“Mr Palmer…” Conn’s voice invaded Palmer’s head and he found himself turning to face the other man. And he did something that he hadn’t anticipated doing, something that happened a lot in the early days before he had learned to control his actions. Palmer dropped his guard and let instinct take over. For the briefest of moments he looked at Harry Conn.
There was darkness and horror and the screams of women and children. This was a person with many demons. Palmer caught the smell of burning hair and heard the crunch of breaking bone. Palmer heard voices. Someone talking on the telephone. He caught snatches of Conn’s childhood: the taunts, the beatings, the despair. And out of the black void came a name, it kept repeating itself, and repeating itself. If filled Tom Palmer with terror: Mr. Happy.
“…Let’s hope for your sake that this is the last time we meet.” Palmer snapped back to reality and the pain returned tenfold.
Jeffries was snoring in the car outside. Palmer tapped on the window and woke him up. Jeffries wiped the sleep from his eyes. “How’d you get on?” he asked.
“Just drive…” replied Palmer. “Just drive…”