Authors: Michael Connelly
Little, Brown and Company
New York Boston London
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cMillan has the deal. The game is five-card stud, nothing wild. And McMillan, the bastard in the porkpie hat, is cheating us. There are six of us at the table. There’s him, then Swain, then Harrington, then Anderson, then me, and then, most of the time, Boyd. I don’t know if that’s a first or last name. He’s just Boyd. And at the moment he’s in the back room with the woman who makes the coffee and serves the whiskey. The bedroom. Her name is Vera Sims. Only McMillan keeps calling her Vera Similitude and he laughs uproariously when he says it. I don’t know what this name means but his high horse laugh is getting to me. That and the cheating.
This is a journal. I write it in what my partner who read it up to now calls present tense. Like it is happening right now. But everything I write down here has already happened. It’s too late. It’s the past written in the present tense. You know what I mean? I’m saying you can’t change it. It’s done.
You play long enough and you pick up the patterns and then you look for the tells. I am a man of principle. My principle is, if you cheat me, you are taking something from me. You are stealing. Maybe not my money but the chance for me to make my money. Yes, and if I let you take from me what is mine, then I am a fool. I am letting you think of me and treat me as a fool.
I don’t allow that. My principle is, if you take from me, then I will take right back from you. Only I will take more from you than you took from me. One time I took a man’s finger off when I caught him turning his ring inside to use as a shiner. One time I took a man’s woman. It’s a rule I have. I never break it. Even if it is the man with the plan.
We have been playing for four hours. McMillan has been slowly telling us his plan for what he calls the greatest heist of all time, all at the same time that he’s cheating us and taking our money. Maybe the others know this and they look at it as the price they pay for the plan, to be a part of it. This is not how I look at it. In four hours I have lost a lot. Almost enough to pay rent in one of these Bunker Hill boardinghouses for a month. I need that money back. I need to take from McMillan and his partner what they have taken from me.
McMillan has this habit I’ve been watching. He has his silver halves in a neat stack on the table in front of him. He keeps raising the stack with two fingers and then letting all the coins drop back down to the table.
Ching, ching, ching,
like that. I’m watching and counting the sounds and counting his coins. Every time he deals, there is one less coin in the stack.
“Hey, Boyd!” McMillan yells to the back room. “You in or out?”
“I’m in,” says the voice from the back room.
Boyd comes out quick, notching his belt just so we can see if we care to look.
“Deal it,” he says.
“Gettin’ yourself a little Vera Similitude, eh?”
And then that laugh again. That lazy horse laugh that’s getting to me. Boyd puts a silver dollar into the center of the table with the others and says he is in. I’m starting to see McMillan with a hole the size of a silver dollar in his forehead.
McMillan starts to deal and I watch his hands while I light a Camel. I lean my head back and blow the blue smoke toward the yellowed ceiling. I see the butterfly moving on the ceiling, winking at me. Nobody else has seen it. Everybody else thinks that to catch a cheater you have to keep your eyes on the cards.
Everybody picks up their cards and my hand’s a stiff. I throw in right away but everybody else stays for the ride. I ask McMillan about his grand plan. Just to keep him thinking, to see how he handles two things at once.
“How are you going to know where they’ll be and when we can go in?” I ask.
“I have a guy,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about that part. I have a guy. The medals will be in a safe. A small safe that they can move around. At a certain point they will take the safe over to the Coliseum for the track-and-field events. It will be there. That’s when we’ll go.”
He eyes me over his cards to see if I’m satisfied. The first round of betting goes by and Swain and Boyd bet large. Swain takes no cards, which raises eyebrows. Harrington takes three, then Anderson does likewise. Boyd takes only one and McMillan goes with three.
I want to ask more questions about the plan but decide to watch and confirm my suspicions. The betting begins and Swain goes big again. He’s got the gleam in his eye, like a man who knows he can’t lose. Except I know he’s already lost. Harrington folds. Anderson folds. Boyd raises big. McMillan drops another raise on that and it’s back to Swain.
I send him a mental message. Call. Just call the hand and accept your losses. But mental messages don’t work. He goes big again and it goes around the maximum three circles and in the end Swain has pushed just about everything he’s got into the pot.
Finally, it’s showtime. Swain has a natural flush, nine of hearts on top. Boyd squeals like a pig in mud. He turns his cards and shows a flush with the queen of spades smiling up at Swain.
“Forget it, I lose,” McMillan says, throwing his hand into the discard pile without turning his cards over.
Boyd smiles and rakes the pot toward his chest. Swain watches the money go away like it’s his wife and kids leaving for good. The moment is tense, nobody likes losing, even if they might think it was on the up and up.
“What about guards?” Harrington asks.
McMillan quickly answers. He’s probably hoping to distract Swain from thoughts of the lost money and whether maybe he’s been cheated.
“Of course, there will be guards,” he says. “Why do you think you are all here? If I just needed a box man, I’d go myself. But I’m gonna need muscles and guns with me.”
“There will be full-time armed security on the box,” McMillan says. “Two men around the clock.”
“Are you sure these medals they give out are real gold and real silver?” Anderson asks. “I mean, all the way through?”
“What, you think it’s like a Baby Ruth bar?” McMillan counters. “Chocolate on the outside, bullshit on the inside? This is the Olympics, fellas. We are talking about medals made of pure gold and pure silver. Through and through, three ounces apiece. Like big fucking lollipops.”
“How do we sell them?” I ask, my eyes deadpan at McMillan. “They’re going to be hot, they probably say Nineteen Thirty-two Olympics or something right on them. We can’t just—”
“We don’t sell them,” McMillan says with proper outrage. “Boyd, you tell him.”
Boyd turns to me and smiles.
“He’s right. We don’t sell them. We melt them down and we make little bricks. That’s what we sell.”
I see the others nod their approval but I’m not so sure about this plan. I’m not even sure there is a plan.
I win the next deal with jacks trips but the pot is barely more than the ante. Only Swain and Anderson stay in and I only get in two raises before being called. I need someone like McMillan to help it along like he did with Boyd but I’m not the one he’s in cahoots with.
Swain recoups on the next deal and then Anderson wins his own deal. That might have raised eyebrows but the pot was threadbare. Nothing to get excited by. And nobody looked sideways at Anderson.
I’m halfway through my deal when Boyd yells to Vera to bring him a shot of whiskey. I knew he would do this. Whiskey or coffee. I knew he’d ask for something.
Wearing a bathrobe that needs a quick visit to the washer, Vera comes out of the back room and goes into the kitchen for the bottle. She brings it over to the table and grabs Boyd’s empty shot glass. She holds it out away from the table and fills it until the dark amber liquid laps over the side of the glass and drips to the floor.
“Jesus, what are you doing?” Boyd yells. “You’re wasting good whiskey, you stupid cunt.”
But I see through this. It is part of the cheat. He is not angry and she is not sorry. I think it is clever that he called her a cunt. It helps sell it.
Boyd puts the shot glass down in front of his money. He glances at me while picking up his cards, then he looks at what he’s been dealt. McMillan holds his cards with one hand while he’s playing with his stack of halves.
Ching, ching, ching.
Swain wins again on my deal. Two pairs, kings over tens. But it’s another small pot and he’s still way down, the wife and kids haven’t come back home yet.
Now it’s Boyd’s deal. He shuffles and shuffles again, making a show of it. He puts the deck down in front of me and I cut it from the middle. He starts to deal, holding his hands chest high so he can deal over his money and his booze. I have a pair of tens. Not bad so I stay in through the first round and draw three. No help. I bail out and just watch. Anderson is out, everybody else is still in.
McMillan opens the second round big and Swain and Harrington call. But Boyd raises and McMillan raises again. Swain calls and Harrington folds rather than meet the price. It goes around the final time. Boyd, McMillan, and Swain. Then it is time to show.
Ching, ching, ching.
Swain has aces over deuces, a solid hand. Boyd shoves his cards into the pile, acknowledging defeat. McMillan puts his best look of I-can’t-believe-it surprise on his face and turns over three fives. Swain throws his cards down on the table. He’s had a bad go of it.
“I just can’t win this fucking game.”
I look at him. That is our signal. Now is the time to make the play.
“Of course, you can’t,” I say. “Not with them cheating you all the time.”
I turn and nod toward McMillan and Boyd.
Everything happens real quick after that. Neither one bothers with the
look. They both start to rise at the same time that their hands drop below the table. But I’m ahead of their game and so is Swain.
I take McMillan, and Swain has Boyd. Swain gets off two shots from his revolver before Boyd has his gun out of his pants. I hit McMillan with one shot neat in the forehead and he goes over his chair and right down the wall.
Harrington and Anderson jump up at the same time Vera screams from the kitchen. Gunpowder burns in the air.
I come around the table to check the dead. Boyd is on the floor gurgling, hit twice in the neck. He’s got a few minutes tops. I pull the gun from his pants and put it on the table. I go to McMillan. Somehow he has fallen so that his hat is pushed down over his face, I squat down and lift the hat. His eyes are open and dead calm. The bullet hole is so clean that it doesn’t even bleed. I like that. I check his hands, both are empty. I check his pockets and find his money roll and a little derringer with pearl-inlay grips. It’s a two-shot pussy gun. I shove it back in his pocket. I look at the hat now and notice that it is a nice hat. Silk lining. Expensive. Made in Chicago. I put it on and stand up.
Harrington and Anderson stand with their arms away from their bodies, their hands open.
“Easy now,” I say.
I nod to Swain so that he knows to watch them. I turn my attention to McMillan’s place at the table. I talk as I lean down and spill the stack of half dollars.
“They were cheating. In cahoots. Didn’t you notice that when McMillan dealt, Boyd usually won? Same thing worked in reverse. Boyd deals, McMillan wins.”
I look over at Harrington and Anderson but they shake their heads. They don’t get it.
“How?” Harrington asks.
I turn over the bottom half-dollar from the stack. It’s been sanded and polished as smooth as a spoon. Like a mirror. I hold it in my palm and move it. I look up at the ceiling and see the butterfly again. The glimmer reflection flits across the yellowed plaster.
“He was using a shiner,” I say as I take a card off the table and hold it so I can see the reflection of the 9 on the polished surface of the half. “He knew every card he was dealing. He also knew what was on the bottom of the deck, if he needed it.”
I drop the coin and the card on the table like they’re poison.
“He and Boyd had signals. I think it was McMillan clicking his silver.”
“What about him?” Harrington asks, nodding down at Boyd on the floor.
“The ashtray. He’d put his smoke on different edges.”
“How did he know what he was dealing us?”
I look at Swain and then into the kitchen at Vera.
“You tell him, Vera.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know a thing about it.”
“That’s bull. What did he tell you about the bourbon?”
She hesitates but knows she has one hope. To come clean.
“He told me to fill it to the top. Whenever he asked for a shot I was to fill it to the brim and he didn’t care if it poured over the edge.”
I look at them and they look at the table. Anderson comes over, picks up a card, and holds it over the shot glass. Ace of diamonds. Reads it in the dark amber reflection.
“Son of a bitch!” Anderson yells.
He picks up the shot, takes a hit off it, and then pours the rest down on Boyd’s open-eyed face. He then turns to Vera.
“Leave her alone,” Swain says quietly. “She was only doing what she was told.”
I start collecting the money from the table. I tell Anderson and Harrington to take what they had at their places on the table. They want to negotiate for the money they already lost to the cheaters but Swain uses his gun to point them toward the front door. They take the money they are entitled to and leave. At the door Harrington looks back at us.
“What about the plan? The Olympic medals.”
“There was no plan,” I tell him. “He was just keeping you busy, hoping you were thinking about gold and silver and not the cards.”
Harrington nods—he finally gets it—and leaves. Swain closes the door behind him.
I open McMillan’s roll on the table. It’s two hundred and forty dollars. More than I thought he would be carrying. Swain and I split that and then we cut up the ninety-three dollars in cash from the table. Swain keeps the odd dollar because I took the hat. We give Vera all the silver—almost fifty bucks—and she gets to keep McMillan’s shiner. She puts it all in a flour sack that she then hides in a cabinet. If she’s lucky, the cops won’t find it when they come about the bodies.