Dear friends, if you like a good chuckle, dim-witted heroes, and larger-than-life villains, then you'll love this fascinating series. On Wednesdays and Sundays, I’m blogging nibble-sized chunks of new ‘Life in the Clouds’ stories. You can check in regularly and read them for free, or wait to buy the entire story when published.
Stroy #3: Gamblers who Cheat ® James Field.
Styles cradled a glass of beer, Vicar Bitter twirled a glass of sherry, the smart man swirled a glass of cognac, and Chief Inspector Dobbs grasped a glass of brown ale. On the table between them rested a roughly stacked pack of playing cards.
"Fancy a game of bridge?" said Styles, his voice lacking enthusiasm.
Chief Inspector Dobbs didn't give Alf time to reply. He nodded at the smartly dressed stranger. "This bloke here is Styles' lawyer and he has to leave shortly. I hate lawyers, so I'm glad he's going. But we need a fourth man."
"I don't know how to play bridge," said Alf. Card playing wasn't the sort of excitement he searched for.
"How about whist, then?"
"That's a woman's game."
Vicar Bitter coughed softly into his hand. "Okay," he said. "In that case, how about a few hands of poker?"
All four stared at him. There was no doubt he had a poker-face. It was long, gaunt, and lacked smile lines. He was a big man, with enormous hands, more suitable for wielding a shovel than a bible.
The vicar shrugged and folded his hands on the tabletop. "I like to keep in with the youngsters. Sometimes I accompany them to their rooms of an evening where we smoke, take drugs, and play strip poker."
This was more to Alf's taste. He twisted to one side and burst out in laughter, but the others scowled at the dry-witted joke. "Good man," he said, slapping the vicar on his back. "I'll join you for a hand or two. What stakes are we playing for?"
"Matchsticks," said Styles.
"Why not money?"
"Because we've heard you always win as if you use magic."
Alf laughed again. Long ago, someone had taken a pot-shot at him and the bullet had torn his forehead out. Surgeons had built it up again with a titanium plate, but the metal had caused severe migraine attacks ever after.
The remedy had been one of Master Trevor Cloud's inventions. He'd etched a micro-circuit into the titanium plate, which not only cured his headaches but also gave him super vision through his pineal gland. It had taken a while to master his third sight, but these days it was no problem to see the cards in the other player's hand. Opponents were chanceless.
"Right, we forget about the cards," said Chief Inspector Dobbs. "I hate playing cards anyway. Let's just get blind drunk."
Alf threw his hands up in an "I give up" gesture. "What's the matter with you lot?" he blurted.
Nobody answered until Sykes sucked in a deep breath and said, "Stick around and I'll tell you. I have a sister…"
"She's a criminal," interrupted Chief Inspector Dobbs.
Styles didn't object; he even nodded. "She's much younger than me and was my parents' favourite. When they died, they left all their wealth to her."
"Deplorable," said the vicar.
"All they left me was this hamlet," said Styles, lifting his arms to include the whole of The Stables. "And in those days it was in ruins and worth nothing."
"Why didn't you sell it to house developers," asked Alf. "You could have made a fortune."
"Because most of the buildings are of historic interest and protected." As if to stifle the odious problem from his mind, Styles slid the top few cards from the deck and started to build a house. His tongue poked out between a perfect set of false teeth.
Alf could easily understand why the authorities had safeguarded the hamlet. Anyone entering The Stables would think they'd passed through a time warp, sending them back to Queen Victoria's days. "Well, it's worth a fortune now. You've made a bloody good job of renovating it. So what are the glum faces for?"
"May I?" said the lawyer, directing his question to Styles.
The old man answered with a small nod and started on the house of cards second floor.
"Mr Styles' sister has contested the will and says she wants a share in it."
"Can she?" Alf glanced around the table. From everyone's expression, it was clear she could.
"Yes, partly," said the lawyer. He paused as if drafting his thoughts. "There is a stipulation in the will that states she has a right to fifty-one per cent ownership of this inn and can claim it any time she likes."
"Ye Olde Inn?" said Alf.
"Just the inn."
"Isn't that enough?"
"But that ain't fair," said Alf. "It's him and his hard work that's…"
The lawyer raised his hand, silencing Alf. "I agree with you. However, all is not lost. Mr Styles has the right to buy her share at today's market value. The courts have given him eight days to either complete the purchase or lose control."
In a flutter, the house of cards collapsed.
Styles, Vicar Bitter, and Chief Inspector Dobbs stared into their drinks.
In an uncertain tone, Alf asked, "Does it matter if she takes control?"
"Of course it does," said Chief Inspector Dobbs. "She'll turn this place into a brothel and gambling house. We can't have that."
"Heaven forbid," said Vicar Bitter, face as straight as a fence post.
"It's what she does in town," continued Chief Inspector Dobbs. "She owns and runs the Hotel California."
Alf had heard of it. "Isn't the Hotel California an old people's home for the wealthy?"
"It's a cover-up," snapped Chief Inspector Dobbs, tightening his grip around his mug of beer. "I tried to bust her once, but she's an evil mobster who covers her crimes well. Her bouncers protect her with their lives. You can't imagine how much I hate them."
Alf noticed his heart rate speed up. It sounded like the place he ought to pay a visit.
"It'll be the death of The Stables as we know it," said Styles.
"Speaking as a man of God," said Vicar Bitter, "I find this appalling. After she turns this magnificent inn into a house of sin, who will allow their innocent young daughters to come to The Stables? The village's entire clientele will shift from God-fearing citizens to devil worshippers."
"Can't you just pay her off?" asked Alf, already knowing the answer.
The lawyer slid a piece of paper from his briefcase and flicked it with a finger. "Surveyors have valued Ye Olde inn at six-point-four million pounds."
"Yeah," agreed Sykes, "and I've got nothing like that much money. The bank won't lend me any either. It's futile. All is lost." From a corner of his eye, a tear rolled down his cheek and splattered on top of his collapsed house of cards.
In this post: The cast of a vote would settle whether Alf should become a spy…
Alf, on the other hand, sensed his mood brighten. This was just the adventure he was looking for: a corrupt woman who ran a mob of villains and who had defied the police and the courts. What more could he ask for? With the help of his enhanced third eye, he could make a fortune at their poker tables, and bouncers were always itching for a fight. "Can you introduce me to your sister?" he asked Styles.
Styles almost laughed. "It's a classy joint, not for ruffians like you. She has friends in high places, very high places, which is why she's gotten away with her corruption."
Vicar Bitter flapped his hand, silencing Styles and directing his attention to Alf. "What do you propose to do?"
"He wants to go there to gamble," said Chief Inspector Dobbs. "And I forbid it."
"Wait just a second," said the vicar. "Wouldn't it be handy with a man on the inside? A spy?"
"I can't allow it," said Chief Inspector Dobbs. "It goes against all my principles."
"Yes, but maybe Alf can persuade her not to carry out her threat."
They all stared at him.
"How?" said Styles.
"I'm not sure, but Alf is a resourceful man. He has gumption, isn't that what his friend Bert is always telling us? Surely, among the four of us, we can formulate a cunning plan?"
"Stop right there," said the lawyer, carefully stuffing his papers back into his briefcase. "I agree with the Inspector…"
"Chief Inspector," interrupted Dobbs.
"Quite so. I do not wish to be party to this conversation. If you intend for this man, Alf, to engage in criminality, please wait until I have left the building before you continue with your scheming."
"Fair enough," said Styles. "That will leave three of us to vote on whether Alf should act as a spy or not."
Alf could tell which way the vote would go: Styles would vote yes, Chief Inspector Dobbs would vote no, and the vicar, despite his incitement, would refuse to commit himself. In either case, Alf wasn't interested. They could plan themselves blue in their faces for all he cared. In his experience, all well-laid plans went wrong. Far better to run with the flow and play on each opportunity as it arose. He couldn't wait.
To be continued…
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Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
A curious book this, about an Englishman searching for his lost infant son in France just after WW2. Laski wrote this book just after the war too, and it shows its age, stuffed with adverbs, adjectives, and telling rather than showing.
It's a heartbreaking story, well worth a read for its stunning portrayal of war-torn France, but the hero, because of his weak morals, is a tough person to cheer for. Also, the plot is obvious and falls flat on its face at the end.
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