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.
Alf 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 to a fight outside.
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 soft blue and he blinked 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?
One thing was certain, if any of them were causing him trouble, he'd take them outside and rough them up. All three if necessary.
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.
Chief Inspector Dobbs 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 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 had taken a pot-shot at him and the bullet had torn 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 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."
In this post: A lawyer explains Sykes' cruel will…
"I have a sister," said Styles. "She's younger than me and was my parents' favourite."
"She's a criminal," said Chief Inspector Dobbs.
"When my parents died," said Styles, "they left all their wealth to her."
"Deplorable," said the vicar.
"All they left me was this hamlet," said Styles. "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." Absentmindedly, Styles slid the top few cards from the deck and started to build a house. His tongue poked out between a perfect set of falsies.
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.
He 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."
"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.
To be continued…
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