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.
#3: Gamblers who Cheat ® James Field.
The village clustered around a large green, formed in the shape of a triangle. In the centre flourished a great oak tree, its canopy almost as broad as the green. A stone-built church, the vicarage, and a graveyard dominated one side of the green. A blacksmith, a general store, and Mr Sykes' stately townhouse ranged along a second side of the triangle. And Ye Olde inn with its stables filled the third section.
Three dirt track roads spun off from the green at each corner. One led out to the entrance and mini zoo at the busy main road. A second led to a residential neighbourhood. The third dropped to a ford and narrow footbridge that crossed a gentle river and then opened to rich meadows. This is where the horses grazed and the farm buildings stood.
Alf made straight for Ye Olde Inn, the community's thriving centre. He usually steered away from alcohol but hoped a beer would lift his mood. As he drew close, he noticed something strange. The Stable's rules prohibited motorised vehicles in the village, but today, apart from three tethered horses, a Mercedes and a moped had parked in the forecourt.
Alf quickened his step. Whatever the special occasion, he didn't want to miss out.
He loved the Inn with its low-beamed ceiling, open fire, and small diamond-shaped lead-lined windows. The scent of ancient cigars and wood polish hung in the air, and the heavy curtains, deep carpets, and thick stone walls muffled sound as though they cocooned him in cotton wool. Today, however, it didn't agree with his mood and only added to his irritability.
"Hi there, Alf," said the barman, polishing glasses. "The usual Coke." He was a pot-bellied little fellow with a bulbous nose, shaggy dark hair, and marble eyes.
"Give me a pint of your best bitter," said Alf. "And put it on the slate." All he knew about the barman was that he used to be a bus driver and deemed himself a psychoanalyst, always asking questions and coming with unwanted advice.
The barman plucked a mug from a shelf above his head and pulled the beer. "What are you celebrating?"
"I'm taking a few days off, a sort of holiday. Any objections?"
"Might have." The barman's eyes twinkled with mischief. "Want to settle it outside?"
Alf swallowed half his beer in one gulp, showed the barman his finger, and shifted his attention to a stranger seated at the end of the bar. He was almost as tall as Alf, wore a black leather jacket, matching trousers, and had a bright red silk scarf tied neatly around his neck. If the gear hadn't been so shiny and new, Alf might have mistaken him for a Hell's Angel.
Alf couldn't be sure, but he suspected the man was gawking at him from behind his mirrored Ray Bands, "What're you looking at?" he said, staring right back. A twinge of hope made him lick his lips. If he played his cards right, perhaps he could provoke this man and take him outside for a fight.
The man slid slowly from his stool, faced Alf, and spread his legs in a wide stance. A grin played across his square jawline as his head raised and lowered, assessing his opponent before the battle.
"Come outside," said Alf, dead set on a good punch-up, "and I'll bust those fat lips of yours."
"I'm awfully sorry," whined the man and whipped his sunglasses off. His eyes were a soft blue and he winked with long eyelashes. "No offence. I just thought you looked so butch." He rested his left hand on his hip, pursed his lips, and smiled sweetly. "I'm here for the wedding tomorrow and it's terribly exciting. Will I see you there?"
Alf's skin tightened. "No."
"Can I buy you another drink?"
"No." Alf broke eye contact and his shoulders dropped: no chance of a fight here either. He snatched up his beer, turned his back on the man, and gazed into the lounge.
Only one table was occupied. Four elderly men sat around it: Styles, the owner of The Stables; Vicar Bitter, who resided in the chapel's vicarage; Chief Inspector Dobbs, a semi-retired police officer who lived in a cottage; and a stylishly dressed man he'd never seen before, a smarmy lawyer maybe. They looked every bit as miserable as him.
Sykes waved at him, beckoning him to join them. The Stable's ageing owner was a money pincher, but also a cheerful and kind old soul who got along well with most people. Despite Alf's low social status, he'd shown him nothing but friendship and had a knack of brightening Alf's mood whenever he felt down.
It pained Alf to see him looking so glum. The normal spark of merriment was absent from his eyes, and his body sagged worse than usual. He wondered if the other three had anything to do with his grief. Perhaps a close relative had died. Why else would a vicar, the police, and a lawyer be sitting with him?
If any of them were causing him trouble, he'd take them outside and rough them up. All three if necessary.
In this post: Vicar Bitter suggests they play strip poker…
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.
"We're playing bridge," said Chief Inspector Dobbs. 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 someone to take his place."
"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 caughed 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 lacking 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 didn't seem amused. "Good man," he said, slapping the vicar on his back. "I'll join you for a hand or two. What 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 took a pot-shot at him and the bullet tore his forehead out. Surgeons built it up again with a titanium plate, but the metal caused severe migraine attacks ever after. The remedy was one of Master Trevor Cloud's inventions. He 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 took a while to master the 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."
To be continued…
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