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.
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 fondly at her.
"Oh, you flatter me, my lord," she answered bashfully and lowered her eyes.
Between her wrinkles, Alf 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."
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 more intimate."
"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."
All women are alike, thought Alf and laughed to himself. But the old hag was disgustingly rich, and would soon own a majority share in Ye Olde Inn at The Stables. Without a doubt, it would be wise to pursue the relationship. When they'd finished eating, he offered her his arm and guided her elegantly out of the dining salon. He knew how a cavalier should behave.
"For now," said Alf, "we must part ways. I'm now going to enjoy a few rounds of poker, but I hope we can meet for the dance this evening?" He bowed.
"Thank you," she answered tenderly. "I hope so too."
Alf bowed again. Her two bodyguards stood side-by-side at Alf's shoulder, with scowls on their faces that didn't inspire enthusiasm. Were they off to play poker, or had they seen through his guise and planned to work him over? Either way, Alf looked forward to the sport and flashed them a wide grin. "Let's go, boys."
Madam Styles lifted her hand and stroked his cheek. "Don't forget we have a date. Save some energy for me."
"Have no fear," said Alf, and kissed her fingers. Bouncing from foot to foot, he followed the goons towards the illegal casino in the basement. His plan was blossoming better than he had hoped. Before the night was over, Madam Styles and he would be engaged to marry.
The casino was larger than Alf had expected. It covered the entire basement. Colourful lights glittered and flashed, a thick carpet deadened sound, and a choking smell of cigars polluted the stale air. No non-smoking rules here. A horseshoe-shaped bar built from glistening glass and chrome dominated a centre position, its barman wore a crisp white shirt and black bow tie. He polished glasses with a tea-towel, and smiled with friendliness to Alf.
Alf recognised one or two of the oldies he'd seen in the dining salon, sitting now at slot machines, but otherwise the local was almost deserted. A roulette table stood unattended. Two middle-aged men slouched at the bar, whisky glasses in hands and giggling like girls, and another two played snooker at the other end of the room. What a marvellous place, thought Alf, but he wondered where he would find partners to play poker.
The two bodyguards conducted him to a green-felted round table with six chairs spaced equally around it. "Pick a seat," said the one he'd paralysed. Alf sat; the two bodyguards removed three of the chairs and dropped into the remaining two. Alf's eyebrows rose in question.
"That's right," said the bodyguard. "You're going to play poker with us. How many chips do you want to buy? The green are a hundred pounds each, the yellow a thousand pounds, and the red ten thousand."
Alf swallowed, if he were lucky, he might have one hundred pounds in his bank account.
In this post: Alf piles up his chips…
"Do you extend credit?" asked Alf.
Both bodyguards narrowed their eyes.
"My wallet went astray at the airport. Some honest person found it and handed it into security. I should have it back later today or early tomorrow. I'm lost without my cards."
"You should phone the bank and tell them," said one of the bodyguards. "Get them to send you new ones."
"Yes, that's precisely what I did. Could be a day or two before I have them."
"We've got a credit limit of twenty thousand pounds."
"Excellent. All I require is one thousand pounds."
"Is that all?"
Alf smiled. "It's all I need. I never lose. Not at cards, not in a fight, and not in love."
"We'll see," said the bodyguard. "One thing at a time, eh? First, you lose at poker because me and me partner are the best there is. Then, if you don't clear your credit, we'll pulverise you. When we're finished with you, you won't have any equipment left for love."
They dealt cards from a new pack. Play opened. Alf had to admit they played well, and it was obvious they used a secret code to cheat. But with his modified third eye he could see their cards and it wasn't long before the chips piled up beside him. The bodyguards, faces as expressionless as planks of wood while they played, smacked their foreheads and ordered a stop.
Alf laughed to himself. He never counted his chips until the game was finished, but he knew he'd never won anything like this much money. Luck still smiled on him. He called to mind the frustrated old hen he would dance with later that evening. She reigned over more money than he could dream of, and the encounter promised to be an interesting fraternisation.
To be continued…
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