If I learned one thing in life it’s this: never turn your back on someone who cheats at cards. There is a lotta things I can stomach, but all my life I’ve had a secret and overwhelming respect for playing cards. Maybe there is a mystery about them, like their ancestry to the Tarot, strange fingers of history and fiction tying them all the way to Egypt. Anyhow, where ever it came from I respected the game of poker and so when I saw Tommy Knuckles dealing from the bottom of the deck I knew it was going to be a long night.
Sometimes you step too deep into somebody else’s mess and then you go from being a bystander to being a liability. It isn’t a fun place to be, because sometimes you sit down at a table and even though you know the stakes are way to high, you have a knife in your back telling you to push on. Sometimes that knife is called love. Then again what do I know about love.
The blond by the door of the smoky backroom was about three inches too tall and about three miles out of my league. This didn’t explain why she was giving me the eye for the last hour. I had to temper my vision by looking over at the other side of the door every couple of minutes at the big bruiser named “Mug” that Tommy used to make sure the game stayed “clean”. Mug was about 6 foot 13 and was strong for his height. He looked like a bulldog, only not half as pretty. He brought my head back into the game, because looking at that dame too long started doing funny things to my sight and made my pants get a little uncomfortable.
Tommy laid down the same three queens he laid down an hour ago. The same three queens I guessed he could have in his hand at any time that night. I was getting tired of loosing, but something told me to stay seated. Maybe it was Mug whose muscles bulged almost as much as the obvious revolver he had at his hip. Then again, maybe it was the leggy blond with the sparkling green eyes and the dress cut so low only faith was keeping it on her chest; and this room didn’t have much faith.
“Hey, Pete, you gunna stop looking at my girl long enough to bet?”
Tommy Knuckles, a shrunken husk of a L.A. lone shark. He came to Chicago two years ago and thought he would make a name for himself in backdoor poker. He ran games from here to Chicago, letting anybody in who didn’t look like a hustler. I guess I didn’t look like a hustler, but then again I was full of surprises.
There was not much I could do about loosing and Tommy didn’t take too kindly to people leaving in the middle of a game. He liked to shake down his “friend” thoroughly before sending them back to the cold Chicago night.
I guess the question was, why was I here? Did I like getting hustled? Did I like having some no neck wannabe wiseguy from the left coast take my money? Actually I was on a case. A big case. A case for the very same leggy blond who kept smiling at me.
Her name was Catherine Prince, she walked into my office about a week ago. She has a sad story and two big green eyes full of tears. Tommy always called her Princess, she told me to call her Cat. This kitten had me wrapped around her finger the minute she walked in, she knew it and so did I, the funny thing is when a women like that has you in her clutches, you don’t really mind being wrapped around her finger. Hell, you don’t mind being wrapped around any part of her.
She wanted me to off her boyfriend, when I told her that wasn’t my game she said she would settle for getting out of the little arrangement he had forced her into. The arrangement consisting of her being his sex toy and occasional punching bag in return for him not killing her.
When she dropped three grand in my lap, I told her I would see what I could do.
Two weeks later and I’m surrounded by four of the ugliest scariest, gun toting mobsters in the windy city playing a dangerous game… and I am not talking about seven card stud.
I dressed in a thick brown wool suit that I had in the back of my closet, I padded myself with a couple of sweaters and slapped an old wig on my head with a hat over it. Pete the Greek I called myself. Hell this bunch was so drunk they wouldn’t know a Greek from a Eskimo.
Around the eleventh or thirteenth hand I started getting itchy in my getup, I knew if I was going to make my move I had to make it soon.
“Listen-uh-Tommy,” I started, speaking low and hoping my voice didn’t sound to fake.
“I’m getting tired of this nickel and dime crap, how’s about a real game?”
The table got quiet real quick. Tommy eyed me from across the table, sizing me up, wondering how much he could take me for. I knew I didn’t look like much, so I did what I always do in situations like this, I bullshitted.
“Listen Tommy, a coupla weeks ago me and my cousin got two brand new Mercedes in a sweet deal over in Nework. What would you say if I put those baby’s on the table?”
Tommy’s right hand clenched and unclenched. He fingered his gold ring just like he always does when he feels greedy. I knew I had him.
“Well, two brand new cars stolen Benzes, I will put up four grand against that.”
One of the other players, the guy they called Big Apple Bob Matenzo, laughed a little.
“Listen Tommy, I was thinking about something else, something-” I let my gaze drift over to the door, over to where she stood. She looked lazily to her left, pretending to be disinterested
Tommy’s eyebrows furled and he thought about this. Then, I could almost see him remember that he could still cheat. A sick smile spread across that ugly face and he shook his head.
“You got yourself a bet, Greek.”
The other guys stood up after a minute or so and went over to the bar. I could hear them mumbling about the high stakes and how ‘Princess” beautiful and all, but two brand new Mercedes were a whole nother story.
As Tommy dealt the cards I wiped the sweat off my forehead.
“If I lose my cousin is going to kill me.” I stuttered.
It was only as the last card fell in front of me that the weight of the situation really started to dawn on me. If I got caught in this play I would be sleeping in the lake by midnight.
Tommy took two cards, so did I. He thought he had it all perfectly planned, little did he know that I grew up in Vegas. I knew more tricks then Tommy could even imagin.
“You want to up the stakes a little?” Tommy said, his face awash with greed and the image of shiny new cars.
“Hell no, I think I am already in enough trouble as it is.” It is amazing how real a lie can be when you are just redirecting one fear into another.
He put down those same three queens, with two eights along with em. That must have been his backup, just in case he really needed some extra ammo.
He was almost out of his seat and bragging when he saw my kings. Four of them. Count em.
I stammered, I did the whole act. Tommy sat in his seat fuming while the boys slapped me on the back and offered me cigars and drinks.
I played it tight, I made like I knew I just used up my luck and I wanted to move on. Because, lets face it, my luck was up and it defiantly was time to move on.
Cat didn’t say a word, she just followed me out. We walked out of the alley and into the street with those slow step you take when you are trying desperately not to run.
I knew Tommy wasn’t going to let her go that easily, but when you are that big of a gambler, you have to look like you pay your debts or you’ll lose face. Tommy knew that as well as I did.
We got all the way to my car when I saw the light in the alley. I knew it was that big heavy Mug getting ready to take me down. He shuffled out of the alley and over to a big van across the street.
Cat hopped in my car the same time I did and just like always the engine started on the first try and purred like a kitten you your lap. I smiled as I knew Mug wouldn’t be hearing the same sound. Just before I got into the card game I snuck around that big clumsy van and slashed the tires. I also stuffed some wet newspaper in his exhaust. He wasn’t going anywhere in that van.
As we sped off, Cat watched me drive. She looked at ease for the first time and her happiness mixed with a certain hunger I had only wished for.
“You look good in a suit, tough guy.” she purred even sweeter then my engine.
She pulled off my hat and my wig and threw them in the back seat. She took my hair out of the tight little bun and sat back to look at me again.
“So where are you taking me?” she said, eyes smiling and those beautiful lips matching.
“We’re going to L.A., Tommy has too many enemies in that town to follow us. Plus I know a couple of clubs where you and me can dance without being gawked at.” I tried not to look over at her because I knew any self control I had would melt away.
“I don’t have a say in this?” she asked, still smiling, still teasing.
“I won you fair and square. You’re mine now.” I said trying not to let the huge smile welling up in my chest over take me. After all, I had to be tough.
“I guess I am yours then- forever?” she pondered. Her voice was still that sexy tone she always had, but just touched with what I could only wish was.. hope?
“Forever’s a long time, but we’ll see.”
And we drove off, right into forever.