“Ah, spread the word the king of the North has arrived!” Stan Davis raised his champagne flute to him as he stepped inside the top floor suite that was prearranged to house the players of tonight’s high stakes poker.
Eric tipped his head to Stan before he scanned the room.
Stan Davis, the former owner of the Queen Regent, was lounging at one of the three round cocktail tables inside the decadent two-floor room with his wife Isabel. He spied Pam playing hostess to Robert Lee, an associate from Singapore, and Charlie Ho, Lawrence Ho’s younger sibling, by the bar. Andre Leclerq was standing idly by the floor-to-ceiling window with an unlit cigar between his fingers. Andre, who had the same red hair and sapphire eyes as his sister, quickly looked away when he met Eric’s inscrutable gaze – too proud to acknowledge his presence.
But if Andre was almost laughable in his attempt to seem indifferent, Russell Edgington and Peter Threadgill were downright comical with their identical scowls.
Eric ran his fingers through his hair as he waltzed toward the oval table in the middle of the room where a brunette with a high ponytail and plump red lips greeted him with a megawatt smile. She was attractive – in an in-your-face-gorgeous way – and if he had met her three months ago he would have included her on his list of conquests. But now, even as his associates eyed her with an almost tangible malice, he couldn’t bring himself to spare her another glance. He’d deny it in a heartbeat but, as pathetic as it might sound, Sookie really broke him.
Pam introduced the dealer as Claudette. She was a last-minute replacement after he received a tip from Palomino that their supposed croupier had been paid off by Edgington to muck the deals.
The depth Russell was willing to sink into to get the upperhand was abysmal.
“Are you ready to lose, gentlemen?” Eric razzed his guests as he took the seat to the dealer’s immediate right.
Isabel rolled her eyes in response but chuckled along with her husband who sat at the black upholstered high back chair one seat apart from Eric.
Since there were only seven players, there were two vacant chairs in the nine-seat poker table. Andre, who was obviously the most inexperienced player in the group, grabbed the worst seat in the house at the dealer’s left.
Russell moved fast as he settled beside Stan, while Peter found himself wedged in the middle of Andre and the Singaporean businessman.
“It’s winner-takes-all. Table stakes rules apply,” Eric started, “Blinds go up after ten minutes. One mil buy-in. No rebuy. You’re tapped out, you leave the table.”
Russell snorted while flicking his hand in a wispy motion. “Thank you for clearing that one up, Northman,” he said with heavy dose of sarcasm. “Now if you’re done measuring your dick, can you please ask the dealer to crack a deck and let’s get this show on the road? Some of us are quite satisfied with size of our cocks.”
Peter sniggered, while the Asian gamblers shifted in their seats with visible unease.
Eric, on the other hand, simply smirked with indulgence. “Then I guess your only problem now is how to make it work.”
“Break it off, ladies,” Stan butted in with a nervous chuckle before Russell could start with a tapestry of vitriol. “If I want to watch a catfight I’d go to Fremont. Let’s light up those Cubans and burns our lungs like men.”
Eric steadied Russell with a flat stare before he gave the dealer a slow nod.
The dealer clapped twice and flashed her hands to the players to show that there were no cards hidden under her white long sleeves. She then opened a new deck and began the shuffling ritual as three men in matching black-and-white uniforms with gray vests started handing out drinks around the table.
Pam and Isabel tried making small talk, keeping their voices to a minimum at the cocktail table, while the security details went to the adjacent lounge room. In a game where the players operate with impunity, discretion was top priority.
The cards were dealt and Eric folded quickly. He had no intention of stringing along a bad hand. This was no game, it was a fucking bloodbath. The first to show a sign of weakness would be targeted to be culled with no mercy.
Andre, the proverbial donkey, was the first to go when his trio of niners fell short against Stan’s full house. The male Leclerq had no idea that he had walked into a trap. No, not a trap, but a slaughterhouse.
The next to bid adieu was Robert Lee, who unwittingly fell into the Edgington-Threadgill snare. It wasn’t science really, any skilled gambler could tell Russell and Peter were playing cousins right off the gates. Eric would have been mildly entertained if his mind wasn’t in the Mandalay with the girl who started it all.
Sookie’s deduction was infallible as always. It was indeed hard to get a read on Russell Edgington. Hard but not impossible.
Eric remained floating in the middle with five players remaining. A tournament like this required a certain level of discipline and patience.
His phone rattled inside his breast pocket, producing a soft whirring noise. He plucked his cell phone out and checked the caller ID. It had no name, just a string of numbers. He didn’t need a name to identify his caller, though.
“It’s almost…” Peter glanced at his watch, “…midnight. Don’t tell me you’re also taking house calls now, Eric?”
Eric shot Peter a flat grin. “I hardly call it business, Peter, but pleasure. You know what they say if it’s after eleven thirty, the call is for the dirty.”
The men at the table sniggered except for Russell who let out a loud snort without lifting his gaze off the table.
“I’m out,” Eric said, throwing his cards in the middle before he raised the phone to his ear. “Excuse me, I’ll have to take this in private,” he said, sliding out of his chair and took a few steps back from the table. He didn’t go far, though. He didn’t want to make it hard for Russell to eavesdrop. “Hi honey,” he cooed, drawing a few eye rolls from his audience.
There was a pause at the other line, before Luca’s accented voice came through. “It is done,” the monarch said without further ado. “We’re at the dock with Customs. Europol is on its way to pick her up along with her crew. She’s demanding a phone call. I can only assume she’ll call our mutual friend for assistance.”
Eric smiled, running the pad of his thumb along his lower lip. “Y’know I love it when you talk dirty like that,” Eric drawled while keeping his eyes on the table to watch the action.
“You’re with him, oui?” the monarch asked, his voice dropping to an almost indiscernible low.
Luca was careful enough not to drop names even if they were both using secured lines. When Eric hummed a syrupy “mmm-hmm,” the elder Warlow went on to relay the details of the drug bust in his mother tongue knowing full well that Eric was fluent in French. With an estimate of over five-hundred-euro worth of cocaine and liquid B, Nora and her associates would be facing a maximum of ten years imprisonment.
Eric weaved his fingers through his hair, his toothy smile never fading. “That sounds fantastic, hon,” he purred, his voice lilting with excitement. “I’ll call you when I’m done, alright?” He stuffed his phone back in his pocket before he swaggered back to his chair.
‘One down, three to go.’
Russell’s farms in Miami, New Jersey and Nevada were also ripe for harvesting, courtesy of Thalia, who expedited the process as soon as she got hold of the sample. Thalia’s connection to the government agency dated way back in the nineties when she had worked undercover for the DEA for six years before Eric recruited her as a sleeper in Edgington Industries.
Because Miami and Jersey were both three hours ahead of Las Vegas, timing the raid was the most delicate aspect. Stealth was the watchword. The operatives had to move in quickly and quietly to avoid tipping Russell off before the Nevada arrest.
It was almost twelve in Las Vegas, which meant the shipment in Miami and Jersey had already been intercepted. Thalia, who was in Florida to oversee the Miami bust, was set to give Pam an update within the hour. The Nevada farm was saved for last.
He was plucked out of his musings when a card landed at the tip of his splayed fingers on the table. It was time for a new deal. Giving his hole cards a partial view, he picked a few chips from his stack and skated it over to the dealer. “I’m in,” he chimed.
“Me too,” Peter piped up, throwing in twice the amount of chips to cover the big blind.
Charlie Ho followed suit while Russell, who was ‘under the gun’, took a minute to drag on his cigar before making the mandatory action of betting on the blind. Stan joined in the action while Eric tapped the table and checked.
After the first three cards – known as the flop – were drawn, Eric checked while Peter called for a raise. Charlie and Russell took the bait while Stan and Eric folded.
It was Poker 101. Because Charlie, the player with the deepest stack, was the current chip leader Peter and Russell would try to bleed him out through squeeze-play. Eric and Stan were too cunning to get caught in the clusterfuck.
As Eric predicted, Peter waged a raise war against Charlie. This was it, Eric thought as he watched Peter and Russell whipsaw the Asian shark. Stan’s gaze flitted to Eric and the two exchanged a subtle look of disdain. They were thinking the same thing: Charlie Ho was being played like a whore.
Russell, who had the second highest number of chips, re-raised again before the turn. Charlie – the damned fool- called the bluff. Peter cowered like the pussy that he was, leaving Russell and Charlie to play for the pot.
The fourth card – called the turn or bridge – was shown and Russell, without so much as a blink, went all-in. Charlie, visibly shaken, peeked at his two cards then rubbed his clean-shaven chin and muttered, “Fold,” as he slammed his cards face down in the middle. As easy as that, Russell climbed the rung of the leaderboard without having to show his cards.
The game continued and Eric, armed with a strong Ace-King, finished what Russell started as he ousted Charlie Ho with three kings, ace high. The Viking rose from number four to number two in a single deal.
Ironically, Peter, who was at the bottom of the food chain, also found himself victim to Russell’s squeeze play when the latter initiated another raise war before the flop was even dealt. Peter was probably under the impression that Russell was going for the ‘dump manuever’, a collusion strategy where a player would deliberately lose to his accomplice to give him enough chips to stay in the game. But when Russell refused to fold his cards by the time the fourth community card was drawn, Peter knew it was time for his alliance with Russell to die a natural death. Peter’s shoulder slumped as he went all-in with a duo of queens all the while knowing Russell had the better hand. Russell ejected his BFF with two pairs: jacks and tens.
Peter, without so much as a peep, downed the rest of his drink and left the table.
“That’s quite a showdown,” Stan gave his two cents as soon as Peter exited the room.
Russell shrugged one shoulder. “My father used to tell me, ‘learn to carry your fucking weight or you’re just dead weight.'” He punctuated his statement with a tight-lipped smile before he bit on his cigar and lit it, puffing up a cloud of smoke that crawled up the high ceiling in come-hither motion.
Stan snickered. “You do know that you just kicked out your only ally at this table.”
Russell’s mouth curved into a sneer. “Pete’s a big boy, he’ll get over it. Besides I can always resort to blackmail. Pete and I know where the bodies were buried in the desert,” he drawled followed by a throaty cackle.
Eric pursed his lips as he watched Stan laugh nervously while distractedly shuffling his chips, making a shrill rat-a-tat sound.
They both knew that coming from Russell, it was hardly a metaphor.
The dealer started giving away their hole cards while setting the new amount for the blinds.
Eric remained mum as he squeezed his cards. It wasn’t the strongest suit but at this stage of the game, every hand was a playing hand.
The betting started. Russell was first to call. He peeked at his cards, reached for his tobacco that was wasting away on the ashtray and dragged. Eric rolled his eyes. It wasn’t the fucking quantum physics; it was either call or fold. Russell was only deferring.
Another minute passed before Russell slid a stack of chips forward to cover the small blind.
“For a second there I thought you had fallen asleep,” Stan jested while he was pushing his own chips for the big blind.
“Ah, Stan, I must say you are quite droll tonight with your hackneyed quips,” Russell shot back with a leer, tapping his tobacco at the heavy crystal ashtray with the gold Regent logo. “Tell me, old friend, how does it feel to be a plebe?” he asked waving his cigar at Stan.
Stan sat straight before he turned halfway to face Russell, mirroring Edgington’s smirk. “I don’t know, why don’t you tell me. From what I heard, you’ve just signed over your entire empire to your granddaughter. Unlike you, my friend, I still have a couple of properties to my name.”
Russell’s eyes narrowed, giving Eric a split-second dagger. The Viking kept his air of cool nonchalance while making his bet, pushing in chips at the center.
“Susannah is only a figurehead. It is still my empire I assure you,” was Russell’s pointed reply. Although he was addressing Stan, his eyes were locked on Eric.
The brunette croupier extended her hand – palm up – toward Russell. “Mr. Edgington?”
Russell tore his gaze away from Eric to glance at his wristwatch. He peered at his cards one more time before he tapped the side of his table and replied, “Check.”
The flop was displayed: seven of hearts, jack of clubs, four of hearts.
Eric lifted a stemmed glass to his lips and watched Russell tip his head to the right, as though he was examining the flop. The devious scoundrel squeezed his card, his stoic expression never changing. Then just as Eric was putting his flute down to the table, he noticed something off with the way Russell was twisting his arm and angling his head.
The bastard wasn’t peeking at his cards. He was checking his watch.
“Make your move, Edgington,” Eric said in a tone of cold command.
Russell thrust his chip up, met Eric’s gaze and smiled. “What’s the matter, Northman? Do you have a date or something?”
“Or something,” Eric replied tersely, his lips barely moving as he leveled Russell with an icy stare.
Russell let out a short chuckle as he knocked on the table twice to check mutely.
Stan also checked – tapping two fingers at the table – followed by Eric.
The dealer burned the top card then flipped the second one, lining it with the first three. It was a six of hearts.
Russell slammed back his drink then knocked twice to check again.
The motherfucker was slow playing them.
Stan, who stole a furtive glance in Eric’s way, lowered his head to study his stack of chips as though he was making a mental calculation. His hand made a slicing gesture as he divided his pile and slid three stacks forward with the back of his hand.
“I raise five hundred,” Stan announced, pushing his chips The croupier leaned forward, arranged the chips into a neat pile and confirmed the amount before she mixed them with the pot.
“Call,” Eric said immediately, pushing his chips beside the pot. He was beginning to channel Sun Tzu, the master of deception when gambling with a weak hand.
The dealer made a quick tally of the chips then nudged her head to Russell. “Your move, Mr. Edgington.”
Russell clicked his tongue in obvious disapproval. He stubbed his cigar in the ashtray and waved at the idle waiter behind the dealer to refill his flute. The wait staff dashed to his side with a tray of champagne, Russell grabbed a stemmed glass and sipped. He made a quick glance at the community cards then started fiddling with his chips. Just as he was shuffling his chips, his free hand flew and scratched the back of his right earlobe – a tell that didn’t escape Eric.
‘Left is truth, right is bull,’ Sookie’s voice rang in his head.
Russell shifted, resting his elbow on the cushioned edge of the table, and piled up his chips into two neat stacks. Apparently, Eric wasn’t the only one with lousy cards.
“I see your five hundred,” Russell grumbled as he slid one stack forward, “and I raise you another five.”
Eric fought the urge to grit his teeth as he watched the bastard take his fucking sweet time pushing the other pile to the center of the table. It was bad etiquette to make string bets, but Edgington seemed unethical enough to pull that kind of shit to delay the game.
Stan rolled his shoulder back and bent his head from side to side, his ear almost touching the tip of his shoulder. Eric pinched the bridge of his nose as he watched Stan crack little by little. If Eric could spot his tell, then Russell could, too. ‘Soldier up, Davis.’
A few pregnant seconds passed before Stan hurled his cards face down on top of the pot and grumbled, “I’m out.”
Eric tugged the side of his cards and peered. He calmly fingered his chips, willing no emotion to show, and matched Russell’s bet.
Russell wearing the same stony expression, mercifully, didn’t call for a re-raise.
Discarding the top card, the dealer placed the final card on the table. Ace of spades.
‘Sookie’s calling card.’
Russell tilted his head to the left, pinching the soft flesh at the tip of his ear lobe. Eric suppressed an urge a smile.
This was taking forever and although Eric had enough restraint to go walk the tightrope with Russell, he was getting antsy from all the stalling tactics. Pushing all his chips to the center he turned to the dealer and called, “All in.”
Russell made a quick glimpse at his stack, doing a quick inventory of his chips. He only had a two-hundred-thousand lead over Eric. If he went all in and lost he wouldn’t have enough chips to cover the blinds for the next round. It was all or nothing and he knew it. Leaning forward, Russell steepled his fingers and stared Eric down.
This time, Russell didn’t try to be discreet as he eyed his watch.
“Get on with it, Edgington. Are you in or out?” Eric asked in a clipped tone.
Russell tittered, shaking his head. “I have never seen anyone so desperate to lose,” Russell countered with a half-smile.
“Huh,” Eric huffed as he furrowed his brows. “You don’t have any mirrors at the MGM?”
Russell let out a hollow chuckle. “So you do have a sense of humor. There’s the charm that lured my granddaughter to your bed.”
Clenching his jaw, Eric swallowed the stinging acid that burst in his throat. Using Sookie was a cheap shot and Russell knew it.
“Funny you mention her,” Stan chimed in, filling the distressed silence in the air with anything but distress. “Where is the heiress, by the way? I haven’t seen her since the fight.”
Russell sank back in his chair and crossed his legs. “Susannah’s busy running a few errands.”
“At this hour?” Stan made an exaggerated gesture of checking his watch. “You must really be screwed if you’re working your ‘figurehead’ this hard.” He used an air quote to fling Russell’s word back to him. “Why don’t you just do the decent thing for once, Russell, and admit you’re broke as a joke.”
Russell drilled Stan with a glare. All his previous attempts to project cool indifference went down the sinkhole along with his tolerance. “No one’s going to Al Capone me,” he spat through gritted teeth. He took a deep breath before his mouth tugged into a leer. “Speaking of Capone, did you bring it?” he drawled, tilting his head to Eric.
Eric rolled his eyes to Russell. “Did you?”
Thrusting his hand inside his blazer, Russell fished for the platinum chip using his index and middle fingers. He raised the Luciano chip for Eric to see before he flipped it in the air and caught it with the back of his hand. Russell’s sleight of hand was nauseating.
“Why don’t we make this a little more interesting? I’ll throw this in the pot if you put in yours,” Russell challenged.
Eric’s eyebrows shot up to his forehead along with a condescending glare. “You never cease to amuse me,” he cackled. “I have no interest in the trinity. Your chip doesn’t even earn a place in my collection.”
Russell’s face darkened, his jaw tightening along with his stare. “The Scarface belongs to me.”
“Delusional, are we?” Eric decided to rub it in.
“I didn’t come here to play for loose change. You know very well that I have a personal stake in this. So, let’s cut the bull and give me a figure,” Russell shot back with unbending resistance.
‘Personal stake, you say?’
Eric leaned forward drilling Russell with a stare that could thaw a block of ice. “You know what I want.”
It was Russell’s turn to look incredulous. “Surely you jest. We both know she’s worth more than a fucking piece of metal.”
The shields were down. The cards were on the table. Even Stan, who pushed his chair back a little, knew it was either get out of the fucking way or get fucked and not in a good way.
“You make her sound like a weapon,” Eric gritted.
“Isn’t she?” Russell volleyed back with a pompous smirk. “And can you guess what the best part is? I’m the one holding the trigger.”
Eric didn’t know where he got the willpower to remain still when all the cells in his body were screaming at him to deck cocky bastard to sleep.
Stan coughed loudly. “I think we’ve had enough break.” He placed both his palms flat on the table, reprising his role as tension diffuser once again. He gave the dealer, who paled significantly in the past couple of minutes, a cursory nod, urging her to resume.
“Mr. Edgington,” the dealer croaked. “Your move, sir.”
Russell flicked his gaze back to his wrist to verify the time before he jutted his chin. “Here’s what I think will happen here, I see a jack and an ace,” he glared at Eric, “you probably have the jacks and you think you’ll get me with trips. But you and I know I have the strongest pair on the table.” He ended his needlessly dramatic play-by-play by shoving all his chips in the middle then slammed his two cards on top.
“Why don’t you do the honor, darling?” Russell purred at the dealer, ordering her to flip his cards.
The dealer turned his cards up revealing a set of aces – diamonds and clubs.
“Mr. Edgington has three aces,” she announced in a clinical tone.
“You see, I never bluff,” Russell quipped with an exaggerated shrug, sinking back in his chair.
“Mr. Northman?” the dealer shifted halfway to address him.
Eric’s shoulder heaved as he took a deep breath before he slid his cards to the dealer. The croupier lined his cards in the center before she flipped them at the same time: A five and a three of hearts.
“Sonofabitch!” Russell exclaimed, banging his fist on the table as the dealer declared Eric the winner with a straight flush.
Eric broke into a grin. “Don’t take it so hard. It’s not your fault you don’t have a heart,” he cooed as he watched Russell bolt out of his chair and storm off the room.