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Authors: Mark Joseph

The Wild Card

BOOK: The Wild Card
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This novel is dedicated to the memory of my father, Herbert L. Joseph, M.D., who taught me how to play poker.
Thanks, Pop.
Most men love to see their best friends debased; for generally it is on such debasement that friendship is founded.
 
—FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKI,
The Gambler
Four miles below Marysville and Yuba City, twin Sacramento Valley towns that face one another across the Feather River, the stream swings gracefully around Shanghai Bend, a broad, sweeping curve whose mineral deposits have attracted miners since the Gold Rush. At the mouth of the bend an unnatural cataract of strange, pitted rocks forms a cascade of shallow waterfalls that drops the river eight feet in a hundred yards. Created by powerful dredges and pumps during the heyday of hydraulic mining in the early twentieth century, the falls at Shanghai Bend prohibit the passage of any craft. The current is swift, the bottom slick and treacherous, and kayakers and canoeists portage their boats around the falls just as miners carried their boats around churning machinery in 1903.
Subject to floods like all rivers in the valley, the Feather has been plugged by dams, constricted by levees and drained for agriculture, yet none of these attempts to tinker with nature has prevented the river from overflowing its banks with alarming regularity. The river is particularly inclined to flood at Shanghai Bend, and every few years the Feather deposits tons of mud and squirming steelhead into the living rooms of a subdivision called Shanghai Bend Meadows.
In 1995 the valley was booming, jobs were being created overnight, and savvy developers promoted nonstop construction of new housing. Thus one morning in late May a backhoe operator began digging a trench between Shanghai Bend Meadows and the east levee. Every year the Feather altered its course, washing out old levees and creating new islands while reducing others to sandbars. The operator was digging in a spot that once had been an island but now was destined to become the backyard of a new house.
In May temperatures in the valley can soar into the nineties, and
the operator liked to work fast before the day became unbearably hot. By ten o'clock, the trench was twenty feet long, three feet wide, and four feet deep when she uncovered a human skeleton.
The outline of a rib cage was visible, and two ribs had been smashed by the action of the steel backhoe. Having worked along the river for many years, the operator knew the riverbed was a treasure-trove of archeology. Neither shocked nor horrified, her first thought was that she'd uncovered a Native American burial site, common in the region. That ticked her off because archeologists would be called in, construction delayed, and her paycheck would shrink while the site was excavated. She sat for ten minutes under her hardhat, smoking a cigarette, trying to talk herself into making the bones disappear. Two or three swipes with the backhoe and the lot of reddish-brown calcium would be over the levee and into the river. But the operator was an honest sort, and after thinking it through she decided to do the right thing. She called the foreman who called the developer who called the sheriff who came straight away, took one quick look and called the Yuba County medical examiner.
When the medical examiner arrived, the operator, sheriff, three deputies, and a half dozen construction workers were standing around, looking into the hole as though some great truth were to be discovered there. To the medical examiner, a skilled pathologist, truth was a matter of common sense and forensic science. He jumped into the hole with a small case of tools and a camera, snapped a photo, pulled on a pair of rubber gloves and knelt over the protruding bones with a whisk broom. While carefully brushing dirt from the rib cage, he addressed his attentive audience.
“This
could
be an Indian site,” he said laconically, pausing to take more pictures. “Or perhaps a miner who died during the Gold Rush. On the other hand, this might be a godforsaken Okie who came to California to escape the Dust Bowl in Nineteen and Thirty-six and died in the promised land.”
Removing soil adjacent to the ribs, he uncovered a fractured cranium and mandible. He photographed the skull, moving in close to capture the small but obvious indentation just above the right temple.
Then he exchanged the whisk broom for a smaller brush and delicately removed chunks of clay from the jawbone.
“But it isn't,” he declared.
“What makes you say that?” the sheriff asked.
“Silver fillings. Relatively modern dental work.”
“Homicide?”
“We have a long way to go, Sheriff, but the skull is cracked.”
“Male? Female?”
“Don't know yet, but we will. I'm guessing female.”
“How long has this body been in the ground?”
“Don't know that either, but more than fifteen years and less than fifty. That's an educated guess. An artifact would help—clothing, a button, a zipper.”
By now it was midday and getting hotter. Sweating, the medical examiner made exploratory stabs with a small spade around the bones and after ten minutes uncovered the only piece of evidence that would ever be found at the site: a single, plastic-coated Bicycle brand playing card, the queen of hearts.
The phone call from California came late at night when Professor Alex Goldman was alone in his study in Manhattan, cheating at solitaire.
“Hello?”
“Wiz!”
“Hey, Nelson, how are ya? We set up? We gonna play?”
“Yeah, yeah, but listen, Alex, I gotta tell ya, Dean just called. They dug her up.”
Dr. Goldman had dreaded this call for so many years, when it finally came he was struck dumb.
“Alex? You there?”
Pause
.
“Alex?”
“All right, okay.”
Dr. Goldman sat up straight in his proper hardback chair, took a deep breath and said, voice deep and husky, “Maybe we can have the big one this year.”
“You bastard.” Lt. Nelson Lee of the Los Angeles Police Department bristled over the phone line. “All you care about is the fucking game.”
Yes, Dr. Goldman thought, all I care about is the fucking game. All I've ever cared about is the fucking game. Our lives are meaningless without the fucking game.
He asked, “Are you in, Nelson, or are you gonna crap out?”
“I'm in. Everybody's in. All the way.”
“Everybody?”
“Don't get excited, not to worry, the table is full. Next Friday at the Palace.”
“Okay,” Dr. Goldman said, calmer. “Good. Very good. See ya.” Dr. Goldman hung up the phone and turned to his computer. He smirked. He had letters to write.
A capsule resume for Alex Goldman, Ph.D.: assist in the identification of a new subatomic particle as a graduate student, make an an important discovery in the field of plasma physics at twenty-six and parlay the package into tenure in the physics department at his alma mater, Columbia University. Toss in some classified work for the Department of Defense and there you have the good professor as the world knew him, flourishing and seemingly content.
Everyone has secrets, an inner life whose details never appear on a resume. Among Dr. Goldman's deeply held secrets was a vice, a dangerous obsession, but he maintained such strict control over his compulsion that his family and friends had never glimpsed a different Alex who lurked beneath the urbane academic they saw every day. Neither his wife, ex-wife, nor children of both marriages ever imagined he had a poker jones the size of Nevada.
Dr. Goldman was addicted to poker, a drug more thrilling than heroin. When he looked into himself, rather than into subatomic particles, he knew what he really wanted to do was play cards. Strange and illogical as it may seem, winning a Nobel Prize would shrivel in comparison to destroying a worthy opponent at seven card stud. He had the tools: ruthlessness, a keen ability to observe others, a gift for math, and a phenomenal memory. Nevertheless, in spite of his prodigious talent, his game was cursed. He knew that if he were to sit down and play cards, he wouldn't quit until he lost everything. No matter how good you were, or thought you were, there was always someone better.
Many years before, when he was only eighteen, knowing his passion for poker was irresistible, he vowed to never play again. True to his vow, he avoided casinos and card rooms and friendly games. His father and grandfather, both poker players, had died penniless, each believing one more hand was all he needed to get even. Dr. Goldman had inherited their poker genes along with his grandfather's antique clay chips. It was a heavy legacy.
He kept the chips, thousands of dollars in cash, and a small,
leather-bound notebook locked in a safe in his study. Once a year he carefully packed the chips and some of the money, pocketed the notebook, and flew to San Francisco, his hometown, for a weekend of poker with his childhood pals. Only with them could he play cards without his addiction running out of control.
Every June Dr. Goldman and his friends rented a suite in the Sheraton Palace Hotel, stocked it with booze and food and played poker as they had for more than three decades. Sitting around a card table with Nelson Lee, Charlie Hooper, and Dean Studley, whom he'd known since they were kids together in an old San Francisco neighborhood called Noë Valley, he could once again be Alex the wizard of Alvarado Street.
His secret was no secret from them. They knew the Wiz was a poker junkie. That was the way Alex was, in the same way that Nelson Lee was still Crazy Nelson from Twenty-first Street, Dean Studley was the same rum-swilling, dope-smoking outlaw curmudgeon from Elizabeth Street, and Charlie Hooper, fishmonger extraordinaire from Dolores Street, couldn't win in their game if his life depended on it. Charlie always lost just as Alex always won. A patina of age and refinement couldn't change that. They were fifty-year-old men who cared deeply about one another, and who, when the chips were down, would happily slaughter one another at the poker table. They'd played together so long it was difficult to deceive one another, the essence of poker, and their efforts to do so made their poker fests marvelously entertaining. Symbolic bloodletting was the name of their game.
 
The rustle of fabric, the whir of fans, the murmur of first class. Bustling flight attendants stowed luggage as passengers found their seats and settled in for the long flight. Among the last to board, a tall, ruddy-faced gentleman of fifty came through the hatch in a cloud of tan linen and elegant Panama hat. Just before the Panama disappeared into an overhead compartment, a little girl across the aisle glimpsed the corner of a playing card, a red jack, peeking from the hatband. Curious, she stared as he tilted his seat back and closed his eyes. She could smell his cologne. An imperceptible slit opened
between his eyelids and he caught her gazing. Gotcha, he said to himself.
“Fasten your seatbelts, please.”
The plane pulled away from the gate. New York lay beyond the tarmac: skyscrapers, rivers and boroughs, wives and children, his adopted home for more than thirty years.
Goodbye, he thought.
Adieu
.
The plane took off. Dr. Goldman took out the leather notebook and began to read. Written in code, a simple transformation cipher, the slim volume consisted of eighty-seven pages of poker wisdom and notes on the habits of players, the first half written in his grandfather's meticulous hand and the rest by him. He read the text in its entirety, reviewing his notes on every game he'd ever played, and when he finished he was transformed. Dr. Goldman no longer existed.
Alex the wizard of Alvarado Street ate a first-class lunch of prawns and steak and took a nap. An hour from San Francisco he woke up and discovered the little girl still staring.
“I saw the card in your hat,” she said. “The jack of diamonds.”
“You're very observant,” Alex replied. “I'm impressed.”
“Are you a magician?” she asked.
He smiled, shook out his elegant cuffs, waggled his fingers like a concert pianist, and pulled a deck of cards from his breast pocket. He winked. She smiled. Twisting slightly in his seat, he rolled over his hand and the cards magically spread into a fan. She giggled and her mom looked over. He closed the deck, waggled his fingers, and spread the cards open again. Every card was a jack of diamonds. Her eyes went wide. He winked again and then ripped off a spectacular staircase shuffle, the cards dancing back and forth like well disciplined soldiers.
“Pick a card, any card.”
For the next twenty minutes he entertained the passengers in first class with card tricks, warming up his fingers, practicing, letting muscle memory take over. He held the cards in a mechanic's grip, forefingers over the front edge of the deck that allowed him to deal seconds and cards from the bottom, things he would never do in a
game but signifying to his satisfaction that his dexterity was still intact. He didn't say much, a little smooth card sharp's patter, letting the cards speak for themselves, and when he finished he gave the girl the deck.
“You really are a magician,” she exclaimed.
“No,” he replied. “I'm a wizard. There's a difference.”
BOOK: The Wild Card
4.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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