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 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 thatched 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, 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 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 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.
In this post: Alf learns where the action is and feels a surge of heartbeat…
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 Inspetor 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.
To be continued…
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