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.
#3: Gamblers who Cheat ® James Field.
Alf's dining table waited for him on the other side of the room. Like the old hag's, it was round, but much smaller and with only two chairs. The white tablecloth was clean and the cutlery neat and shiny. A vase with roses adorned the table's centre. Before the waitress left him, he whispered in her ear, "Who is the charming lady at the head table?"
"That is Madam Styles," she whispered back.
"Can you introduce me to her?"
"Oh, no, Sir. It is she who invites guests to dine with her."
"Thank you. No need to bring the menu. I'll have two large beefsteaks, almost raw. And water with ice on the rocks." He'd drunk enough alcohol. Ahead loomed business and he needed his wits about him.
The waitress hurried off and Alf turned his attention to the two tough guys standing at Madam Styles sides. They carried bulging muscles and poorly disguised guns under their jackets. He'd have to be on his guard.
But it was the Styles women who interested him. She must be about fifty, he thought, ten years younger than her brother at The Stables. She was short and skinny, with pointy jutting joints. Her face was small, her features irregular and saggy, dominated by the hawk nose and a flat chin. Her colouring was pale, and tightly curled hair, dark and flecked with grey, crowned her head like a fuzzy bathing cap.
She wore a black evening gown and a loose wrap with some bright lining and fur on the hem. Around her scrawny neck hung a string of pearls, and she carried a fan. She'd just thrown the wrap, as if carelessly, over her coat-hanger shoulders.
But there was a proud line in her thin neck. She oozed society, culture, wealth, and aloofness. Alf hadn't forgotten she planned to take control of Ye Olde Inn in two days and saw now that he ought to do something to prevent it. A grim person like her didn't belong at the cheery Stables. If he could mix business with pleasure, save the inn from the clutches of her cadaverous fingers and make a fortune while doing it, what could be more satisfying?
Alf gave no heed to the house rules and swaggered across the room toward her table. "Lord Ponsenby," he said elegantly, and bowed.
The waitress rushed to Alf's side and curtsied to Madam Styles. "I'm sorry, Madam, I told him not to come."
"Go about your business!" snapped Madam Styles. "I'll take care of you later. My men will deal with this."
One of the bodyguards detached from the wall and stepped briskly between Alf and the table. He was a head shorter than Alf but broad as a bus and wore his hair in a pigtail.
"Escort him back to his own table!" said Madam Styles.
Alf resisted the impulse to frown. She'd said those few words not so much as a direct command, but more as a challenge. She wanted to see how he would react to a physical threat, and the prospect of a tussle thrilled her.
The bodyguard grabbed Alf's elbow. His grip was firm, intended to hurt, but Alf didn't budge. "I don't wish to cause a scene, my good lady," he said. "I simply wish to give my compliments to the most exquisite and refined woman I have ever set eyes on."
She blushed and fanned her face.
"If you send me away you'll break my heart."
"Get moving," said the guard, obviously itching for a fight. When Alf still resisted, the guard balled his fist and slammed it into Alf's stomach.
If Alf hadn't tensed his stomach muscles, he would have doubled in pain. As it happened, the punch only tickled him. "Excuse me a moment," he said to Madam Styles with a slight dip of his head.
The bodyguard had yanked his fist back, ready to smash it into Alf's face. With the speed, agility, and strength that came with hours of physical training each day, Alf gave the bodyguard a powerful straight-fingered jab into the tender hollow of his armpit. The bodyguard's eyes popped open, his jaw slackened, and he stopped breathing. Like a felled tree, he toppled sideways, slowly at first and then crashed to the floor.
The other bodyguard lurched forward, gun in his hand. But Madam Styles waved him away and glared at Alf with a look of hunger in her eyes.
"He'll be paralysed down one side of his body for about a half-hour," said Alf. "Then he'll be fine again." He gazed around the dining room. The oldies gaped at the ruckus, but none of them appeared worried. It obviously wasn't the first time they'd witnessed a commotion.
Standing to attention and facing Madam Styles, Alf clicked his heels and mounted an expression of hurt on his face. "Since madam is so insistent on my leaving, I have no choice but to return to my own desolate table. Please accept my apologies for this rude intrusion into your privacy, and please don't be hard on the waitress, she has done nothing wrong." With that, he whirled about.
Alf turned back.
"Miss Styles," she lisped, accentuating the Miss, and sent him a faded smile. "Be my guest."
Alf sat and the waitress served his steaks, two slabs of meat, oozing blood. He gulped his food while holding the conversation going with this foul woman. It was clear she wanted to chat. She spoke of her four husbands, dead, all of them, and of her loneliness. As the meal continued, their natter became more relaxed.
"It is delightful to find such a charming dinner partner," said Alf, and gazed warmly at her.
"Oh, you flatter me, my lord," she answered bashfully and lowered her eyes.
Between all of her wrinkles, Alf could he could see that she blushed. But then she uncoiled her back, and a businesslike look of interest replaced the shyness. "Why would a distinguished Lord like yourself wish to stay at a hotel like this? You realise that most of our guests are pensioners who live here until they pass away?"
"I came because I hear rumours that you stage an excellent game of poker at your hotel. High stakes, I understand."
Madam Styles raised her eyebrows. "And whom have you heard these rumours from?"
"Ah, I shouldn't like to involve any of my friends. Secrecy is the safest policy."
"I would imagine," said Madam Styles, lowering her head and studying Bert's face, "that if there were such a gambling enterprise as you mention, only an established member could recommend a new member for consideration. Do you know any such person?"
"No. As I said, I've been out of the country and only have rumours to go on. Of course, those rumours could all be poppycock. In which case I'll settle my bill and leave without delay."
In this post: Madam Styles invites Alf to a ballroom dance…
A wave of regret washed across Madam Styles features, but she soon recovered. "Later this evening we clear away the tables to make a ballroom in here. Our modest orchestra is admirable. Do you dance?"
"Ah, yes, Madam. I like to swing. Give me Jailhouse Rock and my feet fly into action."
Madam Styles laughed. It sounded like a donkey braying. "I was thinking of something a little more sedately, something a little closer."
"I can waltz. That has a pleasant rhythm." Alf raised his arms and swung an imaginary partner. "One, two, three; one, two three: De dah dah de dah, boom boom, boom boom." Lowering his arms, he bunched his clenched fists on the table and shook his head. "But I don't much care for the foxtrot or any of the other stiff styles." In truth, he didn't know how to dance any of the other styles, but he couldn't admit to that. He leaned forward and whispered. "I like to keep the really close dancing for between the sheets." He winked and noticed the blush of excitement in her cheeks.
"Then we're two of a kind," said Madam Styles.
"Yes. Shame about the poker though. I like nothing better than the company of a fine woman, and a good game of poker."
Madam Styles studied him a moment, but obviously liked what she saw. "Alright. Just this once I'll break my own rules and let you play. But my two men here will hang on your shoulder all evening." All trace of friendliness vanished from her face. "At the slightest suspicion of treachery, they'll stop your dancing for ever."
To be continued…
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