In Paris the gambling was hidden but easy enough to find. This one was in the fifteenth arrondissement near the Citroën factory. The thick door had an iron ring for a handle; a thug absurdly disguised as a doorman admitted Kendig and there was a woman at a desk, attractive enough but she had a cool hard air. Kendig went through the tedium of establishing the credentials of his innocence--he was not a flic, he was not Sicilian, he was not Union Corse, he was not this or that. "Just a tourist. I've been here before--with Mme. Labrie. There isn't a message for me by any chance?"
There wasn't. Kendig paid the membership admission and crossed to the elevator. There will be an interesting message for you tonight at the Club Rouge. It had been typed, no signature; delivered to his concierge by an urchin clutching a five-franc note.
He went up in a lift cage piloted by a little fellow whose face was the texture of old rubber dried grey by a desert sun: the look of an Algerian veteran. The old fellow opened the gate on the third étage. "Bonne chance, M'sieur." Behind the smile was a leering cynicism.
Kendig's fathomless eyes looked past the tables at a desolate emptiness of his own. The crowd was moderate, the decor discreet, the costumery tiresomely fashionable. Soft laughter here, hard silence there: winners and losers. The bright lighting leeched their faces of color. Kendig drifted among the felted tables. A croupier recognized him from somewhere and smiled; he was in the uniform--the tuxedo that only appeared to have pockets; to discourage temptation. Kendig said, "They've moved the poker?"
"You must speak with the maître." The croupier glanced toward a largish man in black who loomed over the neighboring wheel.
Kendig had a word with the maître and had to show his bankroll to the cashier behind a cage. He bought five thousand francs in rectangular chips and the maître guided him officiously past the tables to an oak door with massive polished brass fittings. Beyond it Kendig found the game, six players around a table that accommodated eight chairs. A houseman stood in the shadows.
There was one woman in the game; he knew who she was but they'd never met. He knew the American, Paul Jaynes; the others were strangers.
Jaynes gave him a debonair greeting and the others glanced at him but Kendig hung back until they had finished the hand. They were playing seven stud--unusual for a room like this. And the house wasn't dealing.
The woman won the hand and gathered the pot; the maître bowed his way out and Kendig pulled out one of the empty chairs and sat down with his chips. His place was between Jaynes and the woman, with the woman on his left; he knew Jaynes's manner of play and it didn't trouble him to be downwind of the American.
"Been a while," Jaynes said with his beefy smile and Kendig nodded acknowledgment. Jaynes had a deep suntan and a huckster's compulsion to touch anyone to whom he spoke. He was a film producer of independently financed sex-and-sandal epics. The others had the same look: businessmen, promoters--two Frenchmen, a German, a Swede. The woman he knew by sight and reputation; he'd seen dossiers on her--she'd spent a few years as patroness of American exiles in Algeria before she'd tired of the game or been frightened out of it by the professionals. She had been married to a banker but there'd been a divorce and she'd reverted to her maiden name.
"Pot limit of course," Jaynes told him, laying out the ground rules. "Check-raise. It's not table stakes--you can go into your pocket if you want to. Or you can tap out. We try to make it easy on ourselves." He smiled; it was a little nervous--it looked as if he might have started with a larger stake than he had now. "Ante twenty-five francs to the player. The house takes one ante for its cut."
"Seven stud or dealer's choice?"
The woman said, "We decided by majority when we began."
"Suits me." It didn't matter.
The game proceeded. He tried to take an interest in it but most of it came to him like the adult voices you half-heard when you were a small child dozing in the next room. It was one of the things he found soothing about gambling: its detachment from everything. He folded out of three hands on the first round of each; on the fourth he caught a pair of wired jacks in which he had little faith but he strung them along to the sixth card before he dropped out, unimproved; that cost him three hundred francs.
"You're getting cool cards for a newcomer," the woman said apologetically. "You must be disappointed."
He made a soundless reply, a courteous expression. She was wrong, actually; disappointment only follows expectation and he'd had none of that.
After the first half hour he was a thousand francs in the hole and had won only two hands. There had been one extravagant pot; he had not participated in it; the woman won it. That was what the game amounted to--like surfing; you endured the ordinary waves while you waited for the occasional big one. The players who approached it professionally would have none of that--they played every hand to win--but the big ones came their way too and whatever their denials it came to the same thing. The woman was pushing the big ones hard and he saw she was the player to beat.
The Frenchman Deroget tapped out and left the table in vile spirits. He left nine thousand francs in the game. When the Frenchman was gone Paul Jaynes said, "More than two thousand dollars. Not much for a game like this one--but too much for a shrimp like him. I've heard it around that he's in pretty deep. They'll be keeping a close eye on him." He meant the casino: if a man committed suicide his pockets would be stuffed quietly with money to discourage any idea he might have killed himself over his losses.
A few hands came Kendig's way and he raked them in without particular joy. He was only marking time.
The fifth card of the hand was dealt around; Kendig's was a queen and it gave him three hearts face-up. The woman had two nines in sight but she checked them. Kendig checked as well; Jaynes had a pair of fives showing and was eager to bet them--he was cheerfully transparent about it. There were a thousand francs in the pot by then; Jaynes opened the round's betting with a hundred-franc wager and two of the players beyond him called the bet; the German folded and then it was Mlle Stein's turn and she saw the bet and raised five hundred francs. It made a nineteen-hundred-franc pot and when Kendig saw the raise it doubled the size of the pot; and Kendig raised the limit. "The raise is three thousand eight hundred." About a thousand dollars by the day's exchange rate.
Jaynes called the raise without hesitation but he didn't raise back; it meant he had his third five but not his full house. The Swede and the Frenchman folded their hands. The woman smiled a little, thought about it and then called the raise. It ended the round's betting and there was a good sum on the table now: a little over fifteen thousand francs. Two cards remained to be dealt to each player; there would be two more rounds of betting in the hand.
Mlle Stein's card was another four-spot and gave her two pair in sight, nines over fours. The Swede dealt Kendig the king of spades--no visible improvement of his three-hearts-to-the-queen. Jaynes bought the jack of diamonds: his third suit and no evident help for his matched fives. The three-handed betting began with the woman: she counted out five thousand francs into the pot. It could mean anything. Either she had her boat and wanted to build the pot or she didn't have it and wanted to frighten her opponents into not raising.
It was Kendig's turn and he knew every card that had been shown. The hearts were a screen; he had two more queens wired in the hole and he hadn't seen a single king or deuce anywhere in the table's up-cards. Caution dictated a straight call but he made the ten-thousand-franc raise and it folded Jaynes and then the woman was smiling again with her valentine mouth and she bumped him back: "I think I must raise you twenty thousand."
It was as much as some men made in a year. Kendig shrugged and turned to Paul Jaynes. "Can you cover my check?"
"American Express. Paris branch."
"Will it buy me a peek at your hole cards?"
Jaynes said, "You've got enough to cover it of course." He said it with a bit of an edge on his voice: not quite a threat.
"Yes." Kendig had a hundred thousand in that bank and a lot more than that in Switzerland. Most of it had come from gambling of one kind or another. Jaynes knew that much about him. Jaynes said finally, "All right. You can play shy here."
"Thank you." Kendig said it without inflection; he really hadn't cared that much. He pulled the woman's stack of twenty thousand shy and said, "Call."
"What, no reraise M'sieur?" She was amused. It meant nothing about her cards; she was too good a player to coffeehouse any revelations.
The final card was dealt face-down and of course the woman had to come out betting; it would have made no sense to sandbag and in any case the bet only encouraged one's opponent to believe it was a bluff: checking the bet couldn't be a bluff.
She bet twenty-five thousand and Jaynes nodded tautly, covering Kendig. Kendig didn't have to perform any calculations to know there were one hundred and ten thousand francs in the pot which the woman could collect if he folded his hand. If he were to call the bet it would make it a 135,000-franc pot--nearly thirty-five-thousand dollars. She had been reading him for the heart flush but if he raised she would have to change her thinking.
He looked at Paul Jaynes. "Blank check?"
"The size of the pot? Christ that's more than I have to pay a top star for two weeks' location work." Jaynes looked at the three men who'd dropped out of the hand. "Anybody want to lay a side bet against Kendig?"
The German had been very impressed by the woman's play tonight; and perhaps he wanted to prove something because she was a Jew.…The German said, "Fifty thousand francs?"
"You're faded," Jaynes said. "All right, Kendig."
Kendig looked at the woman. She was watching him, waiting without expression. He said, "Raise the pot."
"I don't have that much in chips." But she was smiling.
"It's not a table-stakes game," Kendig said.
She studied him. He'd doubled the pot and it would cost her 135,000 francs to call his bet. It was a big pot now and if she called the bet it would be a hundred-thousand-dollar pot--that much on a single poker hand. Kendig had never wagered as much in his life; such a hand came only once in a lifetime, win or lose. It didn't matter. His mind began to drift. He accepted the woman's scrutiny, neither evading it nor challenging it. Jaynes looked on, agape, hands trembling with anticipation. The German watched with his face as stiffly controlled as that of an addict who was declining a fix three weeks after taking the cure. The Frenchman and the Swede were hardly breathing.
She had two pair showing; she probably had her full house; she might even have four nines or four fours. Kendig was a stranger betting with another man's money--a man he didn't appear to know too well--and she'd know Jaynes well enough to know he wouldn't shill for anybody. So it was honest play and she had to make her decision on the assumption that Kendig wouldn't bluff with Jaynes's money. She had therefore to conclude Kendig had four queens.
She did not call his raise; she folded her hand. "Well done, M'sieur."
* * *
Jaynes buttonholed him at the bar. "Well?"
"She didn't pay to see it."
"But I did, didn't I? At least I offered to. How was I to know whether you had that much in the bank?"
"Why should I have lied about it?"
That stupefied Jaynes. "You had four queens. You must have had."
"I'll tell you this much. I had three queens going in."
"Then you bought the fourth queen on the last down-card?"
"I don't know," Kendig said. "I never looked."
"The hell you didn't. I saw you look at it."
"I shuffled them around. That wasn't the seventh card I looked at."
Jaynes smiled slowly. "Jesus H. Christ. How the hell could you keep from looking?"
Kendig shrugged. The plain fact was he hadn't cared; but it wouldn't be worth the effort to convince Jaynes of that.
"Well we both did all right, didn't we," Jaynes said.
Kendig escaped into the toilette and afterward went back into the poker chamber to collect his winnings. The woman was alone at the table adjusting her hair in a handbag mirror. She must have been close to fifty but she hadn't begun to go to seed. "You're leaving?"
"Leaving this game."
"That's hardly sporting." But it was not said unkindly; she was smiling. "You don't take much of an interest in it, do you."
"I suppose not."
"Such a shame," she murmured. Then her smile changed. "I don't know which is worse--a helpless puppy or a lost American. The only thing you really want is to get home, isn't it."
"What makes you think that?"
"I've never met an American who didn't. Why don't you?"
"Perhaps I will."
"You'll feel better then."
"Will I?" He nodded to the houseman, who swept the chips into a sack and went away with them after Kendig finished making the count.
She said, "You are the one who hounded my trail in Algiers, aren't you?"
"I was one of them. For a little while. They moved me out after a few months."
"I'm retired," Kendig said.
"I see." She didn't believe it for a minute but she was amused rather than angry. "Our Swedish friend just finished telling me what a success you've been on the Continent. Gambling, motorcars, skiing, flying aeroplanes. You've a rather interesting sort of retirement."
"Yes," he said because that was easier than denying it.
She pushed the cards together and her hands became still: she stared at his face. "Would you care to come home with me tonight?"
"Thank you," he said, "I think not." He executed a slight bow and left the room.
The cashier was waiting for him. "M'sieur prefers cash or our cheque?"
"It is a dangerous sum to be carrying on one's person, M'sieur."
"All the same I'll have it in cash if you don't mind."
"As M'sieur wishes."
The maître approached, burly and discreet. "Monsieur Kendig? Téléphone, s'il vous plâit.…Par ici."
He took it in someone's office. He picked up the receiver but didn't speak into it until the maître had backed out and shut the door. "Yes?"
"C'est vous, Kendig?"
Kendig recognized the voice. It was Mikhail Yaskov. Now Yaskov spoke in English:
"You received my note then."
"I should like to meet with you, old friend."
"For what purpose?"
"To discuss a matter which may prove mutually beneficial."
"I doubt the existence of any such matter, Mikhail."
"Nevertheless perhaps you will humor me?"
Kendig's shoulders stirred. "Why not then?"
"It must be tout de suite I am afraid. I am only in Paris another twenty-four hours."
"Tomorrow," Yaskov said, his voice very controlled. "I shall be with the messieurs Citroën and Mercier. Do you know them?"
"Yes." It wasn't far from here: the intersection of the quai André Citroën and the rue Sebastien Mercier, just below the Mirabeau bridge on the left bank. It was a workers' neighborhood, narrow passages leading back, their drab walls daubed with Communist slogans. Fitting enough.
Yaskov said, "We shall meet at Number Sixteen, yes?"
Sixteen hundred hours: four o'clock in the afternoon. Harmless enough. "All right, Mikhail."
"I assure you the transaction will interest you."
Kendig doubted it but he made no reply. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"Yes. Bonne chance, old friend." A soft chuckle and then the line died.
Kendig cradled it and went out and collected his envelope from the cashier. Jaynes waved at him eagerly from across the room but he only waved back and followed the maître to the lift; he rode down in the cage with the old Algerian veteran and went out into the night with a pocketful of money.
Copyright © 1975 by Brian Garfield