Read Streaking Online

Authors: Brian Stableford

Tags: #luck, #probability, #gambling, #sci-fi, #science fiction


BOOK: Streaking
6.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


Copyright © 2006, 2011 by Brian Stableford

Published by Wildside Press LLC


Canny Kilcannon was playing in the top-table poker game, protected from kibitzers by carefully-arranged screens. His game was off, and he knew it. He was still winning, of course, but that wasn't what mattered. He hated playing badly, even if he still won. He won more when he was playing well than he did when he was playing badly, but the money wasn't the reason he played the game—not any more.

He played the game because he was supposed to be good at it: because he felt, when he won, that he deserved to win, that there was a legitimacy in his sense of triumph. At least, he usually did. Not tonight. Tonight, he couldn't get his act together.

Tonight, he had to rely on luck.

Four of the eight players at the table were smokers, and they were the kind of smokers who took a macho attitude to the vice. The obese American was smoking Turkish cigarettes whose tobacco was dark and dense with extra tar. The Arab, on the other hand, was conspicuously failing to enjoy a Havana cigar. The Slav who was so slender that was practically anorectic and the American who was pretending to be an ex-marine were smoking aromatic crap that was posing a real challenge to the overworked air-conditioning.

The haze of their compounded smoke, gathered beneath the overhead light, was grey and wispy, not somber at all, but Canny knew that clouds were still treacherous when they inverted themselves to show their silver linings on the outside, and he was paying attention to his gut feelings, alert for any rumble of alarm. There was nothing definite.

There was a feeling that something was about to happen, but no suggestive indication of what it might be. He stacked a third bad hand in a row, almost glad that the cards gave him no choice. Had he played them, one of them might have improved dramatically when the flop was dealt, but if it had gone to a showdown he'd have looked like a crazy optimist when he showed his hand, and that wasn't what he was. He was a Kilcannon—a
Kilcannon—and he had an image to maintain as well as a secret to conceal. He wasn't some stupid Candide, adrift in a world whose violence and misery he was impotent to escape, but that didn't mean that he had to come across like a smug clown who expected things to work out right even when he did them wrong.

When he was playing badly, the sensible thing to do was to play safe—not because he wouldn't win, but because he wouldn't seem outrageously lucky when he did. The people he was playing against would think that he was lucky anyway—they were the kind of people who never had any other excuse to offer themselves for their own lack of success, no matter how badly they had played—but at least they wouldn't think he was stupidly lucky or insanely lucky.

So he waited until he had a hand that was far better than average—the king and jack of hearts—before he bet again, and then he bet entirely by the book, forcing the issue with mechanical precision. When he won, it was obvious, not merely to the obese American who'd had the misfortune to call him but to everyone else, that he had always had the upper hand—that chance had favored him at the very start, so that all he'd had to do was follow its kindly dictates.

As the croupier began to deal again, one of the waiters materialized at Canny's elbow and whispered in his ear, telling him that an urgent telephone call had been put through to the casino manager's office. Canny folded his hand without looking at it and got up, leaving his chips on the table. He had accumulated about three thousand Euros, but he'd started with a thousand and he'd been playing for five hours, so it was by no means an exceptional take. More than half of it had been won from players who'd left the table, so the seven who watched him go were hardly aware of the fact that they'd been stung; two or three of them were even further ahead than he was.

The waiter led him to Henri Meurdon's office, which was decorated in the same slightly raucous style as the casino itself, although the effect was considerably ameliorated by the paintings hung on the walls. The Delvaux was genuine, Canny had been assured, but the Khnopff was a copy.

“One can't have everything,” the manager had told him, when he'd first been allowed to access to the private space, “and appearance is more important than actuality, in a casino.”

Meurdon was sitting at his desk tapping at the keyboard of his computer. When Canny came in he immediately got up, as if to leave, but Canny raised a hand to indicate that there was no need. Meurdon nodded politely, and focused his attention on his screen to indicate that he would not be listening to anything that Canny said.

The caller was the night-manager from the hotel, relaying a message from Canny's mother. His father had taken a sudden turn for the worse; the apparent remission of his cancer had come to an end; the disease had come back, more aggressively than before.

Canny wasn't surprised that he hadn't had any obvious premonition of the turn of events, unexpected as it was. He wasn't entirely sure whether it qualified as good luck or bad—although Daddy would naturally have taken a very different view—and it wasn't exactly unexpected, even though the moment had come sooner than he expected. His father's cancer was, after all, the reason he was here: the reason why home had become even less bearable than usual.

“I have taken the liberty of connecting to the Air France website, Monsieur Kilcannon,” the manager told him. “There is a flight from Nice at eight-fifteen a.m. which has first class seats available, connecting at London Heathrow with a ten a.m. flight to Leeds. Would you like me to make a booking?”

“Yes please,” Canny said. Monte to Nice was approximately fifty kilometers; to check in at seven-fifteen he would have to leave at six-thirty or thereabouts. It was now three-twenty-five.

“Would you like me to pack your bags for you, sir?” the night-manager asked.

“No,” Canny said. “That's all right. I'll pack them myself when I come back. Please order me a car, though—two cars, I mean. One to take me to Nice from the hotel at six-fifteen, one to pick me up here at....”

He hesitated. Even if he went back to the hotel right away he wouldn't be getting any sleep, and this was the last opportunity he would have to visit the casino—
casino—for some considerable time. Running away had saved him a lot of awkwardness, but it had also stored up a lot of hassle when it came to taking over the reins of the family affairs. He would be shuttling back and forth between Credesdale and Leeds, and between Leeds and London, for months on end—and when everything was in order again, it might be the kind of order that wasn't conducive to
the vices he'd spent the last ten years cultivating with such insouciant assiduity. Perhaps he owed himself one last flutter, one last flourish.

“ four-thirty,” he finished, eventually.

“Yes, Monsieur Kilcannon.”

As Canny lowered the receiver back into its cradle, Henri Meurdon said “Bad news, Monsieur?” in his smoothest voice, wearing his most diplomatic expression.

“Bad news, Henri,” Canny confirmed. “My father. He seemed to have responded well to the chemotherapy—he was really quite cheerful last time I spoke to him, swore blind that he had years of wear in him yet—but appearances seem to have been deceptive. He was always a man to nurse his pains secretly and never let on to the true extent of his fears and expectations—but I dare say that he's dying a little more rapidly than he hoped. His luck's been good while it lasted, but it seems to have run out.”

“I'm very sorry to hear that, Monsieur.”

There was a soft knock at the door. In response to Meurdon's invitation, the waiter came in again, carrying Canny's neatly-sorted chips in a plastic tray. Although Canny hadn't asked for them to be removed from the table, he accepted them graciously and returned a ten Euro chip by way of a gratuity. The seat would still be his if he wanted it, but now that he had the chips he wasn't sure that he did. Poker demanded too much concentration and he had been playing badly even before the news came through. It was time to change to a mindless game of chance.

“Trois milles deux cents quatre-vingts, Monsieur,”
the waiter reported as he backed away. The information was presumably intended for Meurdon rather than Canny, although it was difficult to be sure.

As the door closed again, Canny said to the manager: “Don't worry, Henri. I was playing poker—it's not your money I've won.”

“I know that, Monsieur,” Meurdon said. “It is of no consequence—if you placed it all on your favorite number at the roulette wheel, and won, I would be happy to lose the money.”

Canny laughed. “Is that a dare?” he said. “I won't be back for a while, you know. I have responsibilities now. This was always going to be my last fling—although I'd hoped to spin it out for a few more weeks, if not months.”

Meurdon shook his head. “No, Monsieur Kilcannon,” he said, smoothly. “It is not a dare. I spoke the simple truth; you do me a better turn when you win than you would if you were to lose—which is perhaps as well, considering the amount you have won over the years.”

Canny frowned. He knew about the screen-filled room on the upper floor where Meurdon and his security staff could keep watch on every bet laid in every game, and he didn't suppose for a moment that the manager had been using his computer to surf the web when he came in to take the call, but it still worried him a little to think that the casino might have a record of all his visits, and all his victories. When he played poker the house took its cut in seating fees and the flow of cash was utterly irrelevant, but when he played
chemin de fer
or roulette he played against the house—and Meurdon's house percentage was, in the long term, less powerful than his own.

“I've never had a spectacular win,” Canny said, half-apologetically. “I've been very lucky—but I always bet modestly, compared with your more flamboyant clients, and any profits I've made must have been similarly modest.”

“I know about your modesty,” Meurdon told him, with a slight smile. “Which makes the consistency of your good fortune even more remarkable. I had you under observation for a while, when you played
chemin de fer
, in case you were a card counter. When I discovered that you were not, I was pleased.”

Canny raised an eyebrow, but only slightly, He'd never realized that he was under surveillance, but it didn't surprise him. That, after all, was what the cameras in the hall and the screens in the upper room were for. “How did you convince yourself that I wasn't?” he asked.

“Your betting pattern,” Meurdon told him. “Counters patiently place minimum stakes for hours on end, until they are convinced that the cards in the shoe are biased in their favor—then they begin betting far more heavily. You play your cards as you see fit, whether the shoe has been recently replenished or not, varying your stake in an entirely casual manner. If that were not proof enough, I've observed that the ratio of your stakes to returns is exactly the same at
chemin de fer
, poker and—most remarkably of all—roulette. I don't suppose, given that you might not be favoring us with your custom again, that you'd care to explain how you do it?”

Canny's surprise was magnified, but he felt no alarm. The atmosphere in the room hadn't darkened, and there was no nausea gathering in his stomach. He was not under threat from Henri Meurdon.

On the other hand, he thought, it was one thing for Meurdon to interrogate the record of chips he'd bought and cashed in order to check that he wasn't counting cards; it was quite another to take the trouble to have
his betting patterns analyzed and compared. Meurdon's question was, however, the kind of challenge that he was always prepared to meet.

He laughed. “Well, you seem to know more about that than I do,” he said. “
Entirely casual
, you said—and that about sums it up. I've always been lucky. Yorkshire folk have called us the lucky Kilcannons since time immemorial, so I guess it runs in the family—except that poor Daddy's contest with the crab doesn't seem to have worked out so well. These things always even out in the long run, isn't that what they say?”

“They do say that,” Meurdon admitted, “but all experience of life suggests otherwise. Even the so-called laws of probability, if properly interpreted, suggest that there are always winners and losers in the long run, and that breaking even is no less a statistical freak than any other result. The trick is to make sure that one ends up with the winners rather than the losers. I have the house percentage to make sure that the casino achieves that objective—but you have something more precious, I think. That is why I say that you do better for me when you win than if you were to lose.”

For a moment or two Canny was frightened by the reference to
something more precious
, but then he realized that it was only a turn of phrase, connected with the latter part of the sentence.

Pour encourager les autres
,” he murmured, with a wry smile. “I'm sorry that I haven't been a better ad, then. I fear that I've been a little too unobtrusive to persuade your richer clients to plunge more heavily.”

“You have been a far better advertisement than you know, Monsieur,” Meurdon said—and Canny knew, now, that he was not merely being polite. “One might almost say that you are the ideal advertisement. You are not as good-looking as your friend the football player, let alone the movie stars who honor us with their occasional presence. You are not even as well-dressed, although I would not dream of criticizing your sense of style—but you have something more valuable to me than looks or clothes: your
savoir faire
. You do not bet ostentatiously, but you do bet casually. You bet
, as if betting were as natural as breathing, and you always expect to win...which is not unnatural, given that you usually do. Whenever you lose, you smile, as if you know perfectly well that the reverse is temporary. Whenever you win, you do so gracefully, as if it were your entitlement. Can you understand what a role model like that is worth to me, Monsieur Kilcannon?”

BOOK: Streaking
6.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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