"Hey Don." Narcotics Detective Roland Scorzetti cornered Don Schanke in the break room. "I gotta bow out of our Friday night game this week."
"How come, Rolly?" Don asked. "You gotta be there. I need the money. The next payment on Jenny's braces is due next week and I'm a coupla toonies short. I was counting on your losses to make up the difference."
"What do you mean my losses? I've known you to go home with a very thin wallet from time to time. But I know what you're talking about. My rent's due Monday and I was counting on my share of the take to help me out, too.
I hate to miss it, but I got no choice in the matter. You know that sting operation that Mitchell and I have been working on? I got word from our man on the inside that the deal is going down Friday. If we don't make the bust now, Ramirez is on a plane for Colombia."
"We'll miss you and your money, but I know how important this case is to you guys."
"Yeah. We've put two years of butt busting work into nailing this scumbag. If we don't get him now we never will. Once he disappears into the South American jungles, he's gone for good."
Scorzetti's face brightened. "Say. Why don't you invite that partner of yours to sit in with you guys? He's never been to one of our 'meetings' before, and I know that some of the guys would like nothing more than to teach Mr. Ever So Proper Wunderkind the subtle art of five card draw. In addition to reducing the thickness of his wallet."
"Nick playing poker. I can see it now." He got a faraway look in his eyes. "You know, Scorzetti. Every once in a great while you do come up with a good idea." Schanke said with a wicked gleam.
"Is that a compliment or a complaint?"
"What does it matter among friends? Anyway, I think your partner is calling you." Schanke pointed to the doorway where Detective Mitchell was motioning to Scorzetti.
"Hey, Nicky baby, ol' buddy, ol' pal." Schanke said, slapping his partner on the back. He sat on the edge of Nick's desk, a Cheshire cat's grin plastered across his face.
"Whatever the question is, Schank, the answer is No." Nick Knight said, not even looking up from the papers he was studying. "Whenever you call me 'Nicky baby' and act super friendly, it's usually because you want something from me. Let me see. I covered for you last week when you and Myra went to her Aunt Helen's seventieth birthday party. And I lent you a twenty over three weeks ago. Which, by the way, you haven't paid back ... Yet. I even did all of the computer searches on the Gardner case so you could go home early last Saturday because Jenny's piano class was having their recital and you wanted to get a few extra hours shuteye before the show. So, the answer is No … Nein … Nada … Nyet."
"C'mon, Knight. You're so suspicious. You think all I want from you is favors? This time I'm going to do you a favor. I'm here to offer you a deal of a lifetime. As they say in the movies ... " He did a horrible Godfather imitation. " … a proposition you can't refuse."
"Now I know you're up to no good."
"Honest. This is my opportunity to pay you back for all of those favors you've done for me. It's a win-win situation. You can take it to the bank. I guarantee it."
"You … guarantee it?"
"Like taking candy from a baby! I have just one question."
"How good are you at playing poker?"
"Poker?" Knight thought for a few long moments. "All I can say is that I haven't played in a … a very long time. Does that answer your question?"
"How would you like to sit in with a bunch of us? We get together every other Friday in the Evidence Room. Unless there's an emergency, of course. It's just a little game among friends. Very low stakes. Strictly nickel and dime stuff. It's a high honor. We don't ask everybody to sit in with us."
"Well, when you put it that way … "
"GOOD! It starts at 9:30. Be there. See you then." Schanke headed to the door.
"Wait a minute." Nick called. "Where do you think you're going? We still have the Baxter preliminaries to write up. Cohen wants them on her desk before we leave this morning."
"I know you have the next two days off. That means I won't be seeing you till Friday evening."
"What about the rest of tonight? The shift isn't even half over. We still have another four hours to go."
"Oh, didn't I tell you? I'm going to book off early tonight. I have some … errands to run before I go home. Yeah. That's it. Some errands … for Myra." He left before Nick could stop him.
"That's one more you owe me for." Nick grumbled as he pulled up the preliminary report forms on his computer and began filling in the information.
"Hey, Vera." Schanke said to the Desk Sergeant as he passed her. "You going to be in Friday's game?"
"I always am. Haven't missed a game since we started." Vera Williams answered. "Why do you ask?"
"Just thought you'd like to know we're having a special guest of honor."
"And who would that be?"
"Nick. My partner. He's finally consented to join us."
Vera opened her purse and checked her wallet. Don could see that the majority of the bills were twenties. "Count me in."
"Hey, Mac." Vera called as Officer MacIntyre booked on shift. "New blood in Friday's game. Nick Knight. Bring money this time. Cash only. No markers."
"No markers? But you know I've been a little strapped lately. What with all the extra expenses these past months. You know I'm good for it. I always pay up on payday, don't I?"
"I know you do. But this is a special case. It's cash or stay home."
MacIntyre picked up the desk phone and dialed a number. "Barb, honey." He said as the call was answered. "Remember that hundred we put into the savings account last month? … "Yeah. … I know we're saving it for the baby's christening party … Something's come up and I need it by Friday … I guarantee to double it by Saturday morning … Of course it's a sure thing … You remember Nick Knight? … Yeah. That's the guy … He's going to be in the game … No honey, I don't want the money you saved up for the new nursery. … The hundred will be more than enough … Great! … I love you, too." After he hung up the phone, he balled his fists and raised his arms in the air. "Y-E-S-S-S!" He hissed as he pulled them to his side
"Hey, Mace." MacIntyre called to Sergeant Jed 'Mace' Terrance. "We got a patsy in the game Friday."
"Oh, who's that?" The SWAT leader asked.
"Who's he sitting in for?"
"Scorzetti. He's got a drug bust going down Friday night and he can't make it."
"Knight, eh? He any good?"
"According to Schanke, he said he hasn't played in a very long time. My guess is he's probably rustier than the hinges on an abandoned gate."
"I'll be there with bells on. I have been waiting for a long time to take the blond haired boy wonder down a peg or two." The sergeant rubbed his hands together joyfully. "I still owe him for the Bennett case. Made me and my boys look like a bunch of rookies."
"Yo! Katts." Mace called to the K9 handler. "I hear we got a real sucker in Friday's game."
"Knight's going to be in the game?" Officer Hank Katts said, his eyes widening. "Wouldn't miss this for all the world."
"Good. The more the merrier. And Katts … leave the dog home."
"Leave Rinny behind? But he'll be so disappointed. You know how much he'd like to take a bite out of Knight. One way or another. Particularly after Knight collared that perp that Rinny was chasing. And he did it without even breaking a sweat either. Made Rinny look like he couldn't cut the muster anymore. A real blow to his doggie ego. You gotta let him sit in."
"But he cheats. He marks the cards."
"Detective Schanke." Captain Amanda Cohen called to the detective as he came on duty. "In my office." She pointed to the doorway.
"Yes, Ma'am. Is there anything wrong? If this is about the Baxter prelims, Knight was supposed finish them up yesterday before he went home. Don't worry, though. I know how he can get. Sometimes he can go off on a tangent and forget where he is and what he's supposed to be doing. I'll get on it right away. You'll have the paperwork on your desk by midnight. I promise.''
"No, this isn't about the Baxter case. Knight gave me the reports about an hour after you left last night."
"He did? You mean he actually turned them in on time? Mark the calendar in red! Break out the champagne and the balloons! Tell the newspapers to hold the front page! Contact the high school marching band! This is an occasion for Province wide celebration! Maybe even a national holiday!" Schanke searched for more sarcastic remarks about his notoriously procrastinating partner.
"Yes. I agree. That is highly unusual for Knight. But that's not what I want to talk to you about." She paused for effect. "It has come to my attention that several of the officers here at the 96th precinct have been holding an … unauthorized meeting every other Friday night."
"Unauthorized meeting? … Ah … Yes ... Captain. I know we didn't … get authorization. I mean we should have, but … it was sort of … ah … a spur of the moment thing … at least at first. Then we just … er …sort of … forgot to ask. We meet to … um … discuss department policy … " Schanke was sweating visibly. " …and … ah … bone up on ... um … the latest anti crime tactics … so we can stay on top of … things … To help us be … able to do our jobs… uh … better … and more efficiently."
"Yes, Detective. I can understand that." Cohen said, barely suppressing a grin. "I just wanted to remind you of the regulations pertaining to games of chance on precinct property."
"Gambling?" Schanke said, with as much sincerity and innocence as he could possibly muster on short notice. "You think we're gambling at these meetings? Why, Captain! Perish the thought. We'd never do anything like that. Everybody knows that gambling on government property is highly illegal."
"Very good, Detective Schanke. You deserve a Gemini for that little performance. I figured you knew all about that. Now for the reason I asked you in here. I understand that Detective Knight will be attending his first … meeting this coming Friday. Is that correct?"
Schanke swallowed hard. "Knight? …" He squeaked about half an octave higher than normal. "I … Uh … Well … I … Ah … I … " Okay. Who's the blabbermouth in the group?
"I'm going to take that as a 'Yes'. I have reserved the second floor Conference Room for Friday night beginning at 9:30. I think you'll find that it will be much more conducive to your … discussions than the Evidence Locker. Oh, and Detective. I intend to be there as well."
"You?" Schanke nearly swallowed his adams apple this time. His face blanched nearly the same pasty color as Knight's. "But Ma'am … "
"Yes, me. After all, if you are … discussing department policy, shouldn't you have someone there who knows firsthand exactly what those policies are? Who would be better qualified than your supervisor to do that? And Detective. Make sure everyone brings plenty of paper with them. I intend to take lots of notes. I think you know the kind of notes I'm talking about, don't you?" She rubbed her thumb and first two fingers together in a circular motion.
Natalie Lambert put the six pack of cola in Nick's refrigerator. Right beside the pitcher that held her latest untouched protein shake. "Is the rumor I hear true?" She asked as she put a package of popcorn in the microwave.
"Which rumor are you talking about?" Nick said innocently as he inserted the video cassette into the VCR. He knew that the precinct, if not the entire police force, was buzzing about his participation in the infamous 'Friday Night Poker Game'.
"The one that says that some of the guys at the station are getting ready to take you to the proverbial cleaners this Friday night. Is it true? Are you really going to play poker with them?"
"Sure. Why not?" Nick decided to play along with her. "After all, Schanke said it was just nickel and dime stuff."
"N-I-I-I-C-K! With Schanke and the others, nickel and dime means five dollars to open and ten to raise. They'll eat you alive and spit out the pieces."
"Oh, I don't know about that." He said as naively as he could. "I've played a little cards over the years. I know it's been a long time ago, but I think I can hold my own."
"A little cards … think you can hold your own … Nick. That isn't gonna cut it." Natalie said. "Not with these guys. They're real piranhas when it comes to poker. We're talking the big boys here. They aren't going to cut you any slack just because you're not exactly in their league."
"And how would you know that?"
"Because I … ah … Never mind how I know. I just do. Just trust me."
"I suppose you're a real expert at the game?"
"Well, I don't want to brag, but in med school, I routinely managed to win enough to pay my expenses for the week. Want me to give you a few pointers?"
"Why not?" He bit the inside of his lip to keep from grinning. "There's a deck of cards in the second drawer of the cabinet next to the sink. If you want, we can use toothpicks to bet with. They're in the drawer, too."
Natalie sat across from him at the kitchen table. She riffled the cards a few times. "Their game of choice is five card draw ... Uh, what I mean is … most serious players prefer five card draw." She dealt five cards to the two of them. "Now. It takes … That is, it usually takes a pair of Jacks to open. If you have that or better, you can open for five."
Nick studied his hand. Finally he picked up five toothpicks from the pile in front of him and put them in the middle of the table. "I can do that." He said.
"I'll see you." Natalie put five toothpicks in the kitty. "Now, comes the draw. You discard the cards that don't match and draw an equal number of cards."
"How many can I draw?" He asked. It was almost too much of an effort to keep a straight face.
"You have to hold at least one card, but if you like the cards you have, you can just say hold."
He laid three cards on the table. "Three, please."
Natalie dealt the cards to him. "And dealer takes two." She said as she discarded her cards and dealt. "Now, if you think your hand is good enough you can bet again or you can fold. That means you don't have anything worth betting. You do remember the order of hands, Don't you?"
"I think so. Let's see. One pair. Two pair. Three of a kind. Straight. Flush. Full house. Four of a kind. Straight flush. Royal flush."
"Oh, then I can open." He grinned pseudo-excitedly as he put five more toothpicks on the table. "That is right, isn't it? Open?"
"Right. You do remember. And I'll raise you ten. That means I think I have a better hand than you do."
"And I raise you ten more." He counted out twenty toothpicks.
Natalie put her ten picks on the table. "That's called 'calling'. Now is the time to see who has the better hand. Since I called you, you have to show me your hand."
Nick laid down his cards. "I have a pair of Jacks." He said beaming.
"Then why did you raise me back? When I raised you, that should have been a sign that I had a really good hand." She asked. "I've got three Eights."
"That means you win. Right?"
"Right. And if you play like that Friday, you're not going to be fresh meat. You're going to be dead meat. In more ways than one. Pun intended." She picked up the toothpicks and handed the cards to Nick. "Now shuffle them like you saw me do it and deal."
He managed an awkward shuffle. "Nat. That's an awfully slow way to do it. Wouldn't it be faster if I did it like this?" He held the cards in his right hand about eight inches above his left and rapidly released them. He flawlessly caught them with his other hand. With one hand, he divided them. He picked up a pile in each hand and fanned them. Then he expertly folded them back into one pile. He spread them in a line on the table and with one finger flipped them first one way then another. He slid them together and once more cut them with one hand.
"Nick!" You … You … " She sputtered. "Where'd you learn to do that?"
"Oh? Didn't I mention that in one of my past identities I was a riverboat gambler?" The smile threatened to split his face. "I guess I forgot. I was quite good at it, too. I even managed to win a slave from a bounty hunter who was bringing her back to her master in Maryland ... "
On the Ohio River 1850
Nick Masters stood on the rail of the Belle of The River as it made it's way up the Ohio River to Pittsburgh. He had been making his living playing cards on the riverboat for the past two years.
During this time, Lucien LaCroix had more or less left him to his own devices, only bothering to harass him sporadically. The master vampire was much too involved with the pro slavery faction that was rapidly gaining power in the Southern States to be overly concerned about the day to day actions of his wayward son. As long as Nicholas behaved himself, LaCroix was content to let him be. It had been two years of pure heaven for Nick. Or as close to it as he could allow himself to get.
He took a deep breath of the water scented air and gazed into the star filled night sky. It never ceased to amaze him how, although the stars remained immovable in the sky, from different latitudes and longitudes along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, the constellations seemed to be in slightly different positions over the course of the night. In fact, using these differences, an experienced sailor could calculate the approximate time and, within two miles, his position on the face of the earth just by observing their movements. With instruments such as a sextant, a compass, and a watch, he could tell within a few yards.
Suddenly, his thoughts were interrupted by the sounds of a woman's cries. Although they were barely audible to mortal ears, they were like shouts to the vampire's. In an instant, he was in the interior of the ship, gold flecking his eyes. It didn't take him long to determine the room that the sounds were coming from. He practically broke down the door to the cabin as he barged in.
"What you think you doin' here?" The man in the cabin said angrily. He had a cane in his right hand. The end of it was bloodied.
"I heard a lady scream and I thought she might be in danger." Nick replied, grabbing the cane from the man's hand and broke it over his knee. "I was right."
"You got no right to do that. I wasn't doin' nothin' wrong. There ain't no lady in here." The man pointed to a dark skinned female huddled in the corner of the room. "Only her." She was bound hand and foot with heavy chains that were wound around the leg of the single bed. It was anchored to the floor, making any escape nearly impossible. Her left eye was swollen and blood seeped from her right nostril. Even with her dark complexion, it was evident that she had numerous welts and bruises as well.
Nick pointed to her " She's a lady." He turned slightly and waited until his eyes were normal again.
"Where you from anyway, mister? That ain't no lady. That there is a runaway nigger slave. I'm takin' her back to her master. She's got a pretty hefty bounty on her, too. 40,000 dollars accordin' to the last poster I saw." The bounty hunter rubbed his hands together. "That's enough to buy me that spread in Texas that I been havin' my eyes on."
"That still doesn't explain why you were beating her. And with a cane, no less."
"She tried to bite me. Just 'cause I wanted to get me a little bit of sugar. Reckon it's my right since I caught her. With that kind of a bounty on her, I figure she must be something else special. Thought I'd find out just how special she was. Bit and scratched me like a wildcat, she did." He fingered several welts on his left cheek. "I had to learn her some manners for that. Teach her who's boss. Seems she got kinda uppity while she thought she was free. Musta' thought she was just like real people."
It was all Nick could do to keep the beast from having its way with the bounty hunter.
"So then what happened then?" Natalie asked.
"If you'll let me finish, I'll tell you. As it so happened, the next night I was in the salon at my usual table when this same man came in for a drink … "
On the Ohio River
The bounty hunter spotted Nick and came over to the table. "Mind if I join you and your friends?" He asked.
Nick pointed to an empty chair. "Not at all. But if you sit here, you'll have to join my companions and myself in a game of sport. The current round is five card draw. It will cost you two hundred to buy in."
The bounty hunter pulled out a wallet thick with bills and counted out the required amount. "Name's Colby Turner." He held out his hand.
"Nicholas Masters." Nick replied, deliberately avoiding the hand before him. He indicated to one of the other players. "I believe it's your turn, Bart. Deal the cards."
As the evening wore on, it was evident to everyone except Turner that the bounty hunter was outclassed. While he played well, he was no match for Nicholas and the other professionals at the table. Nick had been consistently doubling the raises all evening, knowing that Turner would not have the funds to cover his bets. He was right. By three in the morning, the bounty hunter was broke and had written several thousand dollars in markers to Nick and the others. Nick was the big winner and he had bought the markers from his fellow players. Everyone except Nick and two others had bowed out of the game and retired for the night.
From long experience, Nick knew that Turner held an excellent hand. The bounty hunter had a nervous twitch in his left eye that got worse as his hand got better. Right now, his eye was sending subconscious Morse Code to Nick. He also knew that this was the time to make his move. Early in the hand, his two companions had folded, knowing that they did not have the necessary cards or monies, and suspecting what Nick was up to. Nick knew that Turner would not fold with the hand that he held. For the hunter, this would be the make or break hand. Nick was determined that it would be break.
" … And I raise you another thousand." Nick said depositing the money on the table.
"I ain't got that kind of money." The hunter said. "Will you take another marker?"
"Not this time. I already have quite a few of them now." Nick said, pointing to the stack of papers at his elbow. "I tell you what I will do. I'll take all these markers and the amount in the pot in exchange for that slave you have."
"Her? But she's worth 40,000 dollars. I only owe you a little over fifteen. And there's more than that in this one pot alone. Just one more marker."
"No. Either the slave or fold. Make up your mind. You have ten seconds. Nine ... Eight ... Seven … "
"Okay. You win. The slave it is." He threw in the letter of authorization from the slave's owner.
"What do you got in your hand that you think is worth my runaway slave?"
"TWO PAIR? And you call yourself a gambler? I got a full house." Turner laid his cards on the table. "Nines over aces." He started to reach for the pot.
"Not so fast." Nick said laying his hand down. "I have two pair all right. I have a pair of red treys and a pair of black treys. I believe four of a kind still beats a full house."
"She's all yours." Turner said as he gathered up the cash. He paid the markers and deposited the remaining money in his wallet. "Me, I'm just glad to get rid of her." He threw a set of keys on the table. "Those are to her cuffs. Hang on to them. You're gonna need them. You might just find out that she's more than you can handle." He gave a salute. "I'm getting off at the next stop. There's always more runaways to catch. It's becoming downright rampant. I hear that there's one in Indiana that's got 10,000 on his head. That'll be a start." He said as he strode from the room.
"So. What did you do with her? Somehow I can't see you as a slave owner." Natalie asked.
"Neither could I. I couldn't in all good conscience keep another human being in bondage. I had too much of that myself over the centuries with LaCroix. When we reached Pittsburgh, I gave her a letter of freedom and enough money to reach Albany, New York. Along with the name of a friend of mine that would help her get to Canada."
"And I bet she was grateful to you for that."
"Not exactly. While she was grateful that I rescued her from Turner and set her free, she never went to Albany. From what I heard along the river, Harriet headed toward Marietta and joined the Underground Railroad there. She spent the years from that time until the end of the Civil War helping other slaves escape to freedom. They called her the 'Moses of her people'."
"Nick. Are you trying to tell me you once owned Harriet Tubman?"
"Come to think of it, I do believe that was her name." He said with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
"Nick. Not to change the subject, but did you tell Schanke or any of the others that you were once a professional gambler?"
"They never asked. Like you, everyone just assumed that I was a rank amateur."
Don Schanke sat at the table in the conference room. Around the table were the other regulars and Captain Cohen. An empty chair was beside him.
"So, Schank. Where's that partner of yours?" Hank Katts asked. "I promised Rinny I'd win enough to make up for the fact that he's not in this game. Did I tell you he pouted nearly all day? Even lifted his leg on the dining room table."
"Don't worry. He'll be here."
With that, Nick walked in the door.
"See. I told you he'd show."
"Sorry I'm late." Nick said as he sat at Schanke's side. "You said that this was a nickel and dime game, so I stopped at the gas station to get some change." He took several rolls of wrapped coins from a plastic baggie and laid them on the table.
"Aw gee, Nick." Schanke said in his most pseudo-compassionate manner. " I'm sorry I misled you. You see, in our circle, a nickel means five dollars and a dime is ten dollars. I thought you knew that."
"Oh. In that case, I'm glad that I didn't cash in all my money." He pulled out his wallet and took out wad of twenties at least an inch thick.
Mace and Katts both rubbed their hands under the table.
Vera made soft sucking noises.
Jenny's brace payments for the next three months.
"Okay." Mace said. "Who's the fiend who dealt this foot?"
"Foot?" MacIntyre asked. "What's that?"
"These cards. They're so bad there's no way I can possibly call it a hand."
"I dealt them." Amanda Cohen said. "Do you have a problem with that, Sergeant?"
"No, Ma'am. No problem. Just the same. I fold." Mace laid his cards face down.
"Captain." Katts asked. "What's this stuff on the back of the cards? Some kind of a Jewish curse?"
"It has to be." MacIntyre added. "These cards sure haven't been very friendly to me." He pointed to his cache. It was less than half of what he had started with.
"Actually, these cards belong to my husband. That's Hebrew. It says 'Make Checks Payable to Temple Beth Shalom.' "
"Isn't it against your laws to play cards on the Sabbath?"
"Bernie is Jewish. I'm not." Amanda Cohen said with a smile. "Now. Who's going to open?"
"I'll just raise you twenty." Vera said. It was almost midnight. Thankfully, this happened to be a slow night on the streets, and they hadn't been interrupted. Or maybe it was because the Captain was with them. It was time to bring this little massacre to an end. She had been carefully watching Knight all evening. While Knight was adequate, he was obviously not a skilled player. Every time he thought he had a good hand, he would begin subconsciously tapping his fingers on the table. He was usually wrong. Right now, he was beating out a staccato rhythm.
"And I'll see that raise." Schanke replied putting two tens in the pot. He too had picked up on the tapping.
"Me, too." MacIntyre put his money from his dwindling stack. So far, except for Knight, he had been the big loser tonight.
The others, although they weren't happy about missing out on it, had folded early in the betting. They just didn't have good enough hands to stay.
"Well. Knight." Vera asked. "What are you going to do? Stay or fold?"
"Oh, I'm going to raise you another twenty." He put forty in the pot.
You think your hand is that good, eh? Vera added her money. You really are as thick as a brick. There was now over two hundred in the pot. "In that case, it'll cost you another twenty to find out what I've got." She checked her hand again. Full house. Queens over nines. It would take four of a kind to beat that, and there had only been two hands of that caliber all night. The chances of Knight holding them were infinitesimal. So far, his best hand had been a low straight.
"I'll take a peek." Schanke studied his hand again. Jack high heart flush. Not bad, but it would be stretching to win. He had come this far. He might as well go all the way.
"I'd like to stay, but I gotta fold." MacIntyre counted out his remaining bills … $40. It would take sixty just to call. Not good. Barb would be very upset. Especially with the baby due in a little over a month. He had lost the hundred from the savings account and about a hundred fifty of his own money. But then, that's why they called it gambling after all.
"Well … ?" Vera asked.
Reluctantly, Nick threw his last bill into the stack in the middle of the table.
"Showtime." Vera said with a smile, laying her cards on the table. "Full house. Read 'em and weep."
"Good enough for me." Schanke threw his cards face down on the table.
"I have two pair." Nick said.
Vera just looked at him as she started to sweep the money toward her. "Good, but no greenie weenie." She said.
"But the two pair I have are both sixes." He said innocently as he laid them on the table and raked in the pot.
"Lucky hand." Schanke said, handing the cards to Nick. "Don't gloat too much. You only managed to get back to where you started from. I'm still the big winner." He stacked his winnings into a neat pile. "Six hundred fifty five dollars, if I say so myself. Not to brag, but I think that's pretty good for an evening's work."
"There's a line from a song that says 'Never count your winnings while they're still on the table'. Maybe you should pay attention to it." He took the cards and shuffled them with more precision than he had before, but nothing like he could. "I feel lucky. Why don't we make this hand a little more interesting. Say. Double the bets. MacIntyre. Why don't you sit this one out. You've lost enough already."
"No way. Knight. You gotta give me a chance to win some of that money back."
Nick concentrated on the tha-thump of the officer's heart. "MacIntyre." He said softly, matching his words to the heartbeat. "You are very tired. Why don't you book off and go home to that beautiful pregnant wife of yours. I'm sure you could be more of a help to her there than you are here."
" Tired … Book off … Home … Barb ..." MacIntyre mumbled as he took his coat from the back of the chair and headed for the door.
"Now, then. Anyone else want to get out while the getting's good?" Nick asked. "Last chance."
"I don't believe this! One good hand and you think you're in Monte Carlo." Schanke looked at his partner. "Are you sure you want to do this? After all, this is just a friendly little game." He winced as Mace's right foot connected with his left shin.
"Oh, yes. Believe it or not, I do know what I'm doing." Nick replied.
"Okay, but it's your funeral." Mace added. If Knight wants to squander all his hard won cash, I'll be more than overjoyed to let him squander some of it my way.
Rinny will be so proud.
"If it's all the same to you." Captain Cohen said. "I think I'll sit out the next few hands." Although she was nowhere near being a professional card player, she had managed to hold her own in the game so far. She had a gut feeling that this was about to come to a screeching halt. She had been to Las Vegas enough times to recognize a high stakes gambler, commonly called a Whale, when she saw one. And Knight was beginning to exhibit all the symptoms.
"But Captain ... " Schanke started to protest, but thought better of it.
"Pit stop." Cohen said as she exited the room. It wasn't just a good excuse. She really did have to go.
"Now that that's been taken care of." Katts said. "How about we stop farting around and get down to some industrial strength card playing."
"Like Mace said. It's your funeral." Nick quickly and expertly dealt five hands. "Anyone care to open?" He asked. Although he had an excellent hand, there was no more tapping on the table. His expression was a textbook poker face. He had almost eight hundred years to perfect the deadpan appearance.
There was silence. Finally Schanke threw a five on the table. "Since no one else wants to take the plunge, I might as well."
"Sorry, Schank." Nick reminded him. "But the betting has been doubled. Remember. It's ten to open and twenty to raise."
"So it is, my good man." With a flourish, he put another five on the table. "So it is."
Mace, Vera, Nick, and Katts also ponied up. No one raised.
They each drew. Mace and Katts each drew three cards. Don and Vera drew two.
"And the dealer will stand pat with his hand." Nick said.
Now the betting started in earnest. Within a few rounds, there was almost five hundred dollars in the pot.
"And I'll just see you and raise you another twenty." Mace said to Nick. He had a full house. Fours over sevens. Not a bad hand. Since Nick stood pat, it was probable that he either had a straight or a flush. And he isn't tapping the table. He's probably bluffing. Any way he looked at it, Mace knew he had the winning hand.
"Too rich for my blood." Katts laid his hand down. His gut feeling told him the three nines he held just wasn't going to cut it. Rinny will just have to understand.
Schanke and Vera had dropped out early.
"Well, Mace." Nick said. "Just you and me. I'll see your raise." He laid twenty more on the table. "What do you have?"
"Full house." Mace said as he started to pull in the money.
"Ah! Ah! Ah! Don't be too hasty." Nick admonished. "You see I've got a royal gathering in my hand. A King and his lady." He laid down the King and Queen of Diamonds. "A King cheating on his lady." He laid down the King of Hearts and the Queen of Clubs. "And a King going stag." He laid down the King of Spades. "I believe that my full house beats your full house." He smiled smugly.
Amanda Cohen watched from the corner of the room. Knight was a ringer. She was almost positive of it. In a way, she was glad he was taking them to the cleaners. She had known about the Friday night 'discussion group' for some time. She had heard through the grapevine that these players were insufferably smug about their poker prowess. Now they were getting a taste of their own medicine. She hadn't quite figured out how to shut them down. Unofficially, of course. At least not in a manner that would allow them to save face. She knew from experience and from her own cultural background how important saving face was. Especially to cops. If he kept this up much longer, Knight might just do that for her.
Within an hour, the tide had turned completely. Vera and Katts had bowed out while they still had something to go home with. Schanke and Mace each had a rapidly dwindling stack in front of them while Nick's bank had grown steadily with each hand.
Cohen now knew for certain that Nick was a pro. He had the uncanny ability to know just when to hold and when to fold that only came with years of practice. With each deal, his handling of the cards became smoother and more expert. She made a mental note to question the detective, most certainly off the record, about which of the casinos in either Las Vegas or Atlantic City he had practiced his trade. To the best of her knowledge, there was nothing in his personnel folder about this particular aspect of Detective Nicholas B. Knight's abilities.
"I tell you what, gentlemen." Nick said as he expertly ruffed the cards. "Since it's getting late, how about one last pat hand. Everything in. Winner take all."
"I don't know, Nick. Aren't you being a little bit greedy? After all, you've already got almost everything we had. Now you want the whole enchilada … or is it the whole souvlaki?" Schanke said. "What I got in front of me won't even last until tomorrow, let alone till payday. In fact, I may even have to hit you up for a loan."
"I need mine, too." Mace added. "Maybe I'll just quit while I still have enough left to get a tank of gas."
"Come on, guys. You were nice enough to invite me into your game. At least let me give you a chance to recoup something."
Mace had only about fifty in front of him and Schanke's hand wasn't even worth counting. Although Nick hadn't counted his either, he calculated there must be close to two thousand. Money he could easily do without. Not so the two who were with him. Mace had just closed on a new house, and he suspected that Schanke had raided Jenny's college fund for this game.
"Okay." Schanke reluctantly agreed. "You got everything but my skivvies anyway. Might as well donate the rest of my holdings." He threw his three fives onto the pot.
"And here we thought we were going to take him to the cleaners." Mace grumbled under his breath as he put his meager holdings into the kitty. "Okay, Card Shark. Deal them."
Nick carefully felt the cards as he dealt them. With his enhanced senses, he could feel the pattern of raised inks on each card. The newer plastic coated cards made determining the specifics of each card more difficult than when he was on the riverboat, but it was still not impossible. By carefully using all the tricks at his disposal, pre stacking, bottom dealing, and palming them, he was able to deal each of them equal hands, two pair, jacks over nines, while dealing himself a hand full of queen high garbage.
"Time for a showdown." He announced as the last card was dealt. Each person turned over his hand.
"Well, well, well." Mace said. "It looks like Donny and I have identical hands. So what do we do now? Have a runoff? One cut? High card."
"Why not divide the pot?" Nick suggested. That had been his intention from the start of this hand.
"Why not?" Don replied. "I'm willing if Mace is."
Mace nodded assent. "In fact, just to make sure everything's on the up and up, why don't we let the Captain do the honors." He made an exaggerated bow to Amanda Cohen.
Cohen nodded, smiling. She separated the pot into two equal stacks. A quick count had each stack at a little over nine hundred dollars. "What about you, Knight?" She asked. "Don't you want a share of the bounty?" He deserves it. That was the slickest bit of slight of hand I've ever seen outside of a magician's convention.
Nick counted a hundred dollars off each stack and put them in his wallet. "I'll take what I came into the game with. That's more than enough for me." He smiled at his Captain, his partner and the SWAT leader.
"Why'd you do it?" Schanke asked as he and Nick walked to their respective cars that morning.
"Do what?" Nick asked.
"Deal Mace and me the winning hand. You coulda had everything but you managed to give it back to us. Why?"
"Are you saying that I deliberately dealt you the winning hand?" Innocence oozed out of every pore on Nick's face. "I don't know what you're talking about. It just happened that way. Pure coincidence."
"Coincidence my left hind foot. Nick. I may not be in the same brain class as Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein, but I do know that the odds of the two of us getting the exact same hand in a pat deal are something like eighty gadzillion to one. How'd you manage to do it anyway?"
"Well, It's not exactly a time in my life that I like to talk about, but when I was a teenager, I ran away from home and joined a traveling carnival for a while." He explained. "At least until my father caught up with me and brought me back. Most of the carnies were past masters at the art of double dealing and they taught me all the tricks of the trade." It wasn't exactly a lie. He had run away and joined a troupe of wandering minstrels. In the year 1212. He was fifteen at the time.
He made a mental note to contact Larry Merlin about inserting something in his personnel file about his supposed stint with the carnival. He knew that it would cost him. Big time. Larry's 'services' did not come cheap.
"Why didn't you say something to me at the start. We all thought you were a first class greenhorn."
"That's exactly why I didn't say anything. Schanke. I was glad you thought enough of me to invite me into your game. Even if it was only to relieve me of my money. I know I'm not exactly Mr. Popularity. Maybe some of it is my own fault. I don't make friends that easily.
I intended from the start to give back everything I won. I'll make arrangements to return the money they lost to Vera and Katts somehow. Without their knowing that I'm doing it, of course. And don't you say a word to them. I don't want to embarrass them by making them think they're getting charity or anything like that. I just wanted to teach you guys a lesson about assuming things about other people."
"Believe me, partner. You did that. In spades." He winced at the unintentional play on words. Bad Donny. Bad Donny. No souvlaki. "And don't worry. I won't say anything to Vera and Katts."
"So. Can I sit in with you guys next time if I promise to play it strictly by the book? Fair and square all the way."
"I don't think that's likely. I talked with the others and we all agreed that after the drubbing you gave us, we have no business playing anything more difficult than Old Maids. And as far as betting goes, it looks like we will be using Life Savers instead of loonies from now on. I'm afraid the 'Friday Night Discussion Group'… " He made quotes with his fingers. " … Has been officially dissolved."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Maybe it's all for the best. I mean it was getting a little too hard on the pocketbook. If you know what I mean. I'll be making payments on Jenny's orthodontia for at least the next two years. Mace just bought a new house. And MacIntyre has that new baby on the way and Barb's had a difficult pregnancy. Vera's son will be starting university next term and Katts's car is running on borrowed time now. Definitely won't last through this winter. If it even makes it that long. We just don't have the ready money to throw around like we did when we began doing this three years ago."
Now he knew how he was going to do the paybacks. Nick reminded himself to call Aimee, his 'contact' at the De Brabant Foundation about arranging something for MacIntyre and his wife when their baby arrived. Perhaps Aimee could work with one of the baby stores in the area to award them a 'prize' of a complete layette and nursery setup. Maybe even a little cash to go with it. She should also be able to set up a partial scholarship or some kind of a work-study program for Vera's son.
Then there was that car dealer that owed him one after Nick had exposed one of his salesmen that had been skimming on commissions. Perhaps he could be persuaded to give Katts a deal on a car. There was the call to Jenny's orthodontist. And the bank that held Mace's mortgage. He reminded himself to include a little something for Scorzetti as well. This week was shaping up to be a busy one.
"So what will you do now?"
"Don't worry, Nick. We've got a lot of things to keep us busy." Suddenly, a fiendish gleam came to Schanke's eyes and his mouth curled into a wicked grin. He put his arm around Nick's shoulder. "By the way … Nicky … ol' buddy … ol' pal … Partner. How are you at bowling?"
I'll give you 3 to 1 that it's not.