Thursday, 5 February 2015

Nick's Game - a short story by Mark J Howard

I first read this story on the writing website: YouWriteOn. It is a superb story. The author, Mark J Howard has kindly given me permission to share it. Take just 5 minutes out to tread it - you won't regret it. Mark is a currently homeless and does all his writing on an old BlackBerry phone! Inspiring! An interview with Mark follows.

Mornin,’ Father. Whoa! No need to panic – I don’t mean you no harm. The knife ain’t for you. Come over here an’ sit down.

Guess you’re wondering why I’m here so late, with dawn mass finishing an hour ago. Truth is I was waiting for everyone to leave, hid under the pews while you was locking up so it’s just you an’ me. Real cosy, like. I need to say some things to you, Father, and it’ll be truth, every word. I swear it on that big fancy Bible you got over there. Swear to him up on that cross.

Don’t fuck me about, just sit down and listen. Your breakfast can wait, okay? That’s better.

You heard of Nick Malvagio? He’s a big-time hood operates out of Queens: Astoria, I think, up by the Hell Gate. Got his fingers in lotsa nasty little pies, knows just about everyone decent folk don’t wanna know. He’s kinda connected, too. Knocks around with some real bad men, does Nick, real bad men. Yeah, I see you’ve heard of him. Thought you might have. Him nailed up there, he knows the guy too.

I’m not a bad man, Father, not as a rule. I’m a card player and I’m a damned good one. It’s how I pay the rent, run the Honda and spend a couple of weeks a year back home in Maine. I know the secret, see? The Golden Rule: don’t be greedy. Greed’s a sin. But I guess you know that, considering where we are, with that poor schlep looking down on us. More than a sin, though, greed can get you killed. Or worse.

Sometimes the art of winning is knowing when to lose. My old pa’ used to say you can shear a sheep many times, but you can only skin it once. You play smart, you can make a decent living; you play dumb, you end up with less than nothing. I seen it. I know.

You gotta know when to walk away. Know when to fold, see? It don’t matter what hand you got – sometimes it’s best not to play it. Some guys, though, guys like Nick Malvagio, they don’t see it that way. They don’t respect the secret like I do.

He knows it too, poor bastard. Tried to do a bit of good but played his hand wrong, skinned the wrong sheep so they nailed him up. Son o’ God he may be but my guess is he’s a lousy card player. 

Don’t look at me like that, it ain’t blasphemy to say so.

I was looking for a game, see? Things’ve been quiet for a stretch, just low level shit. Couple of tourists and some frat boys, nothing challenging. Nothing lucrative. I was itching for some real action, looking to win me a bit of cream, enough for a new TV since my old one went on the fritz. 

I thought Lenny would know of a game, Lenny Doyle from the betting shop in Hollister’s basement. I don’t do the horses, too much blind chance involved for my taste, but Lenny knows every card game going and spills for bucks. The better the game, the more he charges for the skinny. He’s a cranky bastard, too. You gotta know how to approach him. You come at him straight and he’ll flip, like he’s scared you’re wired or something. Not that the cops’d ever be interested in the little runt, I shouldn’t think. Lenny’s a minnow with a set of plastic piranha teeth and he’s a pain in the ass but his information’s always good.

He’s reading the paper as I walk in, bent under one of the lights in the gloomy basement, all outrage and morality. I say hello to few faces and grab an awful coffee from the vending machine before going over and saying hi.

He ignores me, a good sign, and then starts jabbering on about how the city’s all gone to rack an’ ruin and how there’s no respect any more. He’s got a burger in one hand and a joint in the other and carries on talking where most polite people would be chewing. Grease stains all over the place, messy bastard, and I don’t think he even knows what shampoo is. In no time, there’s nothing left of the burger except for the ketchup stains down the front of his crummy Hawaiian shirt and the stink of processed cheese on his breath. Lenny makes some fair scratch out o’ me, out of lots o’ people, beats me why he’s such a bum. Camouflage, I guess. 

He finally looks at me and stabs his finger at the front page of his newspaper, leaving greasy smudges all over the photo of a dark-eyed hero cop being buried today. I’d heard about it on the Honda’s radio. The cop, Carver or Curtis or something, was a big blue superstar from the 49th precinct. Charmed life, lotsa big busts. On his way to the top, they said, until he ran into half a dozen dum-dums tryin’ to bust a sex-slave ring operatin’ outta some old cemetery, of all places.

Lenny goes on for a bit, language not suitable for these surroundings, but you’ve gotta let him get on with it and nod like you give a shit. Twenty minutes, fifty bucks and a fifteen percent kickback on any winnings later, I’m on my way to a warehouse on Twenty First Street, over by the Triboro Bridge.

It’s a cold night out, but that Honda’s got a real good heater, I mean, real good. It’s like there’s a nuclear pile in there or something, so I don’t notice the frost until I find the warehouse and park up. There’s a cold wind blowing and the warehouse don’t look like the cosiest of places, full of cracks and holes. I nearly don’t go in. Nearly call it a night and go home to my warm apartment, watch a bit of TV. But the TV’s on the blink, so what the hell, right?

There’s a couple of guys inside the door, all steroids and fake commando, muscles like cats in a stocking leg. The kind of guys who can crack walnuts with their ears, the kind of guys certain other kinds of guys like to call security. It’s nothing new to me, lotsa people like to keep the low-life outta their games. I just tell ’em Lenny sent me and they check me out using CIA-style mikes and earpieces. Nice touch, I think, a little OTT maybe but hey, we live in uncertain times, right? 

They let me in like they’re disappointed, itching to turn some poor chump away and slap him if he argues. Keen to show the boss how tough they are, to prove themselves worthy of being more than just doormen. Miserable apes, they got no idea they’ll never be anything more in this life or the next.

The warehouse is full of crates with Chinese writing on them and smells of pepper, old newspapers and wet matches. It’s cold inside, too, draughty and dismal enough to have me pulling up the hood on my coat and cursing my decision to come in. I follow the directions the doorman grunted at me and find an office at the far end of the building. 

Inside it’s a lot warmer and there’s a few card tables and a roulette wheel. There’s even a makeshift bar staffed by a couple of honeys in sexy dresses that really don’t suit the place. The main strip lights are off and the room’s lit by small desk lamps so it’s cosy enough. The air’s so full of cigarette and cigar smoke it stings my eyes for a minute before they can adjust. It’s obviously a working office by day but most of the desks have been pushed to the far end, making more room for the twenty or so people there. I know a few of them but most are strangers to me. 

One of the honeys takes my coat and gives me a flash of teeth. I gotta say, both those girls were gorgeous. I mean, like, Broadway gorgeous. The kind of gorgeous you see on billboards trying to sell panties and scent. You gotta wonder what gals like that are doin’ serving drinks to guys like me in a crappy warehouse in the small hours of a frosty Wednesday morning. There’s no justice, you know? A crying shame, so it is, an honest-to-God fucking tragedy so far as I can see.

Anyway, she offers me a drink while I wait and I ask for a coffee but, before she can bring it, there’s a big sigh from a table in the middle of the room. The Big Table. Somebody’s just lost, and lost big. The somebody turns out to be a kid, fresh out of college maybe, and he gets up in silence, unsteady on his pins. He’s got the look. The look like he’s just been shot in the head.

He gets up and staggers away for a few paces before stopping and turning around. He’s shaking like a shitting dog as he goes back to the table and the four players still sitting there look at him all suspicious, ready for trouble. He’s just a kid, maybe he don’t know the rules, but it’s okay. He pulls his jacket from the back of his chair and then turns to leave, for good this time. His face is red as fresh cut beef and there’s tears all down his cheeks. He rushes out as fast as he can, not looking anybody in the eye, and is gone. The boss, sitting at the head of the Big Table shuffling the deck, nods at a big guy in a shiny suit. The big guy follows the kid out with a determined look on his face, like a football player thinking about his next drive.

“We seem to have an opening, if you’d care to join us,” Nick Malvagio says. I’d never met him before, but I’d heard of him. He’s the owner of this game and he’s just invited me to his table, so I can’t refuse. Wouldn’t have, anyway. I’d heard he was a good player and I like to test myself against good players from time to time. Win or lose, it keeps me sharp enough to shear the lesser sheep. So I accept. Malvagio offers me the deck to cut and I just tap it – mark of respect, see? Shows I trust the table to shuffle right. Besides, I’m busy taking my jacket off, rolling up my shirtsleeves, settling in.

I introduce myself and take my seat while one of the honeys exchanges my cash for chips, just a couple of grand’s worth.

“I have heard of you,” Nick says, “ hear you can play cards.”

I smile and do the modesty thing, it’s what they all expect, a kind of unwritten etiquette. You’ve gotta be careful in games like this; lotsa the players are heavy guys so you don’t want to screw with them. You win off them fair and square and they get vindictive on your ass, their buddies jump in and stop it. These people don’t tolerate bad losers and they tolerate bad winners even less. Like I said, you gotta be careful, tread a fine line. Laugh at their jokes, join in the conversation, pretend you ain’t spotted their tells. Still, I’m kinda happy to know he’s heard of me, and he’s given me an intro the table will respect. They know I’m a player now, so they know I’m here for just one thing. It calms them down; now they’ve got an excuse if they lose and a tale to tell if they win. 

“You know me,” he says, “Nick Malvagio, owner of this... magnificent establishment and this delightful little game. The gentleman to your left, if such an appellation can be attached to so rough a beast, is Charlie ‘Hotdog’ McMahon.” This is how he talks, I shit you not. His accent sounds real enough but he don’t talk like any Italian I ever met. “Twixt Charlie and I sits possibly one of the greatest minds fork lift truck driving has ever produced, Dickie ‘The Fork’ Miller.”

I shake the guys’ hands as they’re introduced and already I’m getting the measure of them. Poker ain’t just about the cards, see? Fact, the cards are probably the least important part of the game. Poker’s about people. You can calculate all the odds you want but if you can’t read people you’ll never be a real poker player.

“And finally, to your right, Albert Meadows; the only accountant ever to have shot himself in both feet, with two different guns, on the same day.” The rest of the guys laugh, even old Albert laughs in a ‘screw you’ kind of way. So, all these guys know each other and they’re pretty tight. I’m the outsider, and that can be dangerous, but it’s also a big plus. They don’t know anything about how I play but they know how their buddies play. So I can key off how they react to each other, see? Gives me an edge. It don’t matter much. After a couple of hands I can’t see any of them posing a serious threat. None of them except Malvagio. He’s as good as I heard he is.

An hour later an’ I’m hittin’ my stride, winning steady, bit at a time, enjoying myself. Outside, in the cold, New York’s curled up around us like a sleeping cat. Only us fleas are still up and about.

The Accountant gets himself a real good hand, his nostrils give it away, and I know he’s going for it. I got nothing so I fold and soon it’s just Malvagio and the Accountant with bullet holes in his feet. I can’t read Malvagio at all, there’s nothing gives him away. It’s a joy to behold, you know? Like watching an artist or something.

From the cards on show I can guess what the Accountant’s holding but I’ve no idea what Malvagio’s got. The Accountant finally makes his move and goes all in. One of those silences falls, you know? Everybody watching, waiting to see what’s going to happen. The door opens behind me and somebody comes in but nobody takes any notice, not even the honeys.

Malvagio stares at the Accountant for a long time. He’s got a face like Marlon Brando but younger and a lot thinner. His suit’s the best one in the room by a long shot and even an alien from Mars would know he owns this game. Eventually, he goes all-in too and the cards are turned. The Accountant’s toast but he takes it on the chin. I reckon he’s just burned eight grand but the money don’t seem important to him. Cleaned out, he makes his excuses and limps to the exit, throwing cheery farewells to the honeys. Nobody follows him.

“Carter!” Malvagio shouts to the guy who just came in, “join us.”

A youngish, dark-eyed man in jeans and a Yankees sweatshirt drops into the Accountant’s old chair. He looks determined, a bit too determined, and empty. Like he’s already lost big tonight. I’ve seen him somewhere before, but I can’t place him. Probably at other games around the city. He doesn’t recognise me so I let it go. Lots of faces in the poker game. 

There’s something about his face, though, you know? Something defiant. He reminds me of your man up there, when he was in that garden waitin’ to be pinched. Gethsemane, was it? Yeah, that’s the place. Like he knows he’s on the very last hand of his very last game and can only figure one way to play it out. There’s undercurrents here. I see it but I’m too dumb to be worried, thinking I can take advantage of the new guy’s distraction.

“Gentlemen, meet Absalom Carter, pride of the NYPD and current holder of the Tri-State most-hookers-banged-in-one-afternoon award.”

Carter doesn’t like his intro, but listens as we all get introduced. He doesn’t shake hands. When Malvagio introduces me, he calls me “a very good card player whom I suspect is holding back for fear of getting a little bit shot at if he plays to his full potential.” I can’t tell if he’s joking with me or making a challenge.

Carter plays competently but impatiently. His mind’s on more than the game and he’s waiting for a good hand. It’s clear he wants to go up against our host but Malvagio gives no sign he’s noticed. I take advantage of the cop’s distracted state to win me my biggest pot of the night, two and a half grand. Nick Malvagio nods at me but I can’t read what the nod means. God, but he’s good. Really, really good. Perhaps the best I’ve ever played. 

Perhaps.

Carter gets the hand he’s been waitin’ on and makes his play. I stay with it for a while but the last card’s a nothing and I fold. Malvagio bets six grand and there’s that silence again. Carter’s got about four grand in front of him in untidy piles. He’s been disdainful of it since he sat down but now he needs it bad and he ain’t got enough. What happens next is as old as poker, old as dice, old as the world, maybe. Carter don’t want to quit. He’s got faith in his hand but air in his pockets, an arrangement needs to be made.

“There’s only one thing of yours I want,” Malvagio says. “The thing you already owe me.”

Carter knows what he means and tries to cry off. He was expectin’ somethin’ less, I think. There’s real fear in his eyes now, he’s wavering. The other players look at each other. They know what’s going on and I know better than to ask. I’m in too deep now, gettin’ dragged to places I don’t wanna go. I’ve won enough, so after this hand I’m gonna dust off. Maybe swing by Gregor’s all-nighter and pick me up a new TV. Nice plasma screen or something. Go home, pour me a stiff Jack and watch Max Keiser on RT. It’s a good plan, the best one I’ve had all night I think, and I just need to wait for Carter and Malvagio to finish up before I can git gone.

“I’ve known you for a very long time, Carter. You’ve made a lot of money out of me and you’ve also, to my eternal regret, betrayed me. There will be a reckoning, have no illusions about that, but if you bet what I desire then we will be square. If you fold, of course, the problem of what to do with you – and her – remains.”

That’s what Carter’s been waiting for. If he wins this hand he’s not only a lot richer but also off the hook for whatever it is he did or didn’t do. It’s pretty clear that he’s a cop on the take and that Malvagio’s got him cornered. Now Carter wants out and this is the only way he can think to get there.

He agrees and turns his cards. Time does that thing where it stops and has a look at what’s going on. Malvagio turns his cards and it’s all over for Carter. Two heavies loom up behind him.

“Take officer Carter away and make sure he hands over my winnings,” Malvagio says, pulling the chips in the middle of the table into his own enormous stack. The heavies grab Carter by the arms and pull him away. He doesn’t resist. He’s got the same look on his face as the kid I saw on the way in. They drag him out the door and away. It’s time for me to quit but I don’t get the chance.

“I want you and me to play a hand,” Malvagio says, “a real hand. Just the two of us. I want you to give me your best shot. I’ve been waiting for you to play properly all night and your holding back is becoming tiresome. Fear not, there will be no use of firearms, should you win.”

I try to bail but he doesn’t listen. He just deals the cards and, like it or not, I’m in. How did things turn to shit so fast? I should’ve left when the cop arrived, I should’ve seen this coming.

First card he deals me is the king of hearts, the second is the nine. I do as he’s asked and slip into play mode, betting high. Jack of hearts, and my heart is starting to beat a little faster. I’ve got just shy of twenty one grand in front of me, way more than I’d planned on walking away with. The next card he gives me is another heart, the ten this time, and I’m on the promise of something decent. I bet big, but not too big. Taking my time, feeling Malvagio’s gaze on me and hoping he doesn’t know what I’m thinking.

The last card comes and it’s an atom bomb. The queen of hearts. I’m holding a straight flush, the nine to the king of hearts. The best hand I’ve held in all my life and almost the best hand there is. Almost.

Malvagio doesn’t even think about it.

“All-in,” he says, pushing his chips into the middle of the table. There’s fifty grand there, easy, and I can’t remember seeing so much in front of him before but there it is. Beautiful. Terrifying.

I haven’t got that kind of money on me. He knows it but he can’t know what cards I’m holding. Only one poker hand can beat mine and he can’t have it. The odds against are astronomical. I have to play. I have to. We must dance the credit dance. But what do I got that he needs?

“There’s a man I want killed,” he says and, at first, the words refuse to go into my head, you know? “His name is Joe Turner. He used to do some work for me but he’s strayed rather badly of late and seems to think he’s found God, or some such nonsense. I’m informed that he spends most of his time at a certain church, helping out, stacking chairs and other such morally stout activities. Bet your services in this matter and I shall regard the pot as covered. I will even provide you with a gun and an alibi, should you lose the hand, of course.”

I look at him but it’s no joke. He wants me to murder somebody. If I lose. Holding the best hand I’ve ever seen. I look at him for a long time, weighing up my options. He hasn’t bluffed all night but that don’t mean shit. I study his face for some clue, no matter how slight, but there’s nothing until, just for a second, I get this feeling. 

Maybe I’ve seen something, something that doesn’t register consciously, but suddenly I know him; I know who it is I’m playing against and a shiver trickles all down my spine and into my nuts. But my hand is still strong, still the strongest I’ve ever held. All my life boils down to this one moment; win a small fortune or kill a man. Damnation or salvation. Play or fold.

Then it hits me, right out of the blue; I know where I’ve seen the cop before. He was in uniform then, which is why I didn’t recognise him from the photo on the front page of Lenny’s newspaper. A dead hero covered in greasy fingerprints. 

So that’s why I’m here. You might say it was on the cards. You know who I really played poker with today and you know that there will be consequences. He’s looked into my eyes and he knows me now, knows that I exist, so what else could I do with that straight flush?

I need you to tell Joe Turner, Father, warn him to get outta Dodge fast as he can; and I need you to give me the Last Rites.

The end.
© Mark J. Howard 2008/2015

Interview with Mark: 

1) Nick’s Game is on of the best things I’ve read on YouWriteOn. Where did the idea come from?
Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say. The idea for Nick’s Game came from the same place most of my ideas come from – daydreams!
We all take stuff in all the time – images, stories, facts, ideas, colours, sounds, smells, perspectives, feelings – a whole universe of disparate stuff. The trick is to notice as much of it as I can and then just take time to sit with a pencil and just daydream – let it all play on its own. The ideas are all there, crashing together, it’s just a case of catching them and writing them down, like fishing. Most of the ideas turn out to be tiddlers or old boots but occasionally I hook one like Nick’s Game and develop it. So, to (finally!) answer your question, the idea came from a mixture of The Sopranos, Goodfellas, a late-night poker show on the telly and ideas about evil and the nature of the Devil. All these ideas kind of stuck together like clay and I just refined the shape.

To answer truthfully – I don’t know!

2) I read the story believing the author was a native New Yorker. How did you pull that off?
Again, thank you. I think that’s a great compliment for a Lancashire lad like me – I’m more Alan Bennet than Al Pacino. Again, it’s about paying attention to things, in this case accents and rhythms of speech. In the case of Nick’ Game, it was always set in New York for some reason so I had two choices – either the Brit abroad or the local. The Brit abroad voice didn’t feel right but the local voice would be a challenge. To approximate that New York underworld kind of speech I cheated – I watched Goodfellas and imagined it was Joe Pesci telling the story. I basically tried to simulate that tough-guy-poet thing he’s so good at. I think I got it half right but I don’t know any New Yorkers so I might be miles out.

3) Tell me a little about your background as a writer. How long have you been writing? Why do you write? - that sort of thing.
I’ve been writing and reading for as long as I remember. I was never happier than when I had a pencil in my hand. There were always these ideas in my head just dying to get out and I spilled them onto paper like they were the most precious things in the world. It was mainly trash, of course, un-focused and with nothing much to say. I wrote then because I wanted to be a writer – I wanted it more than anything and I suppose I thought I deserved it. It was as if the act of putting a story on paper somehow validated it. I had some short stories published in tiny fanzines and thought I was a genius. I became convinced that I was a good writer and couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get published. So I gave up on it for a while. I concentrated on my first love, writing comic scripts for the Small Press.  Now nearly 50, I’ve decided it’s time for me to learn to write, which is why I find YWO invaluable. I’m still having the same ideas I’ve always had and I’m still scribbling away. The difference is that I don’t want to be a writer any more. I’m just a man who enjoys writing and anything else is just a bonus.

4) What else have you written?
Not much, really. Apart from the bits and bobs on YWO, I’ve written
four full-length novels, two comedy sci-fi, a comedy fantasy and a
James Bond-style adventure (all mercifully unpublished). Maybe a dozen tiny fanzine stories. From about 2008 I started having success with comic scripts for Small Press comics FutureQuake, Zarjaz, DogBreath and Paragon. Comic scripting is great training (not that you’d know it from my rambling answers!) in brevity. The scripts I have had published are Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog and MACH 1 (from the comic 2000AD), the major episodes of Jikan, a time-travelling, demon-hunting rogue Samurai created by Dave Candlish and a handful of original sci-fi/horror/fantasy/humour strips. I have several similar scripts accepted by editors either being illustrated or in the queue, including an entire graphic novel of Jikan. I wrote a newspaper column for a local Polish newspaper lasting all of two issues and created and edited a factory magazine. Oh, and I once wrote and illustrated The Adventures of Burnley Smith for Trout comic, an ill-fated Viz clone from the 80s.


5) Have you ever had anything published?
Apart from the comic scripts, only once. The story is a straight sci-fi tale titled In the Wink of an Eye and appeared in either the first or second YWO anthology. We had to buy our own copies, so I’m not sure it counts.

6) Is it true you do all your writing on an old BlackBerry mobile phone?

At the moment, yes. I was recently made homeless and everything’s gone a bit wrong. Not as wrong as it might have gone but wrong enough.
My only link to the web right now is this fantastic old BlackBerry
(Hint, hint, Mr BB!) so yes, all my revisions and YWO reviews, and a
couple of new short stories, even this, all on a tiny ‘phone. It’s amazing, really – I may write a novel about it. Well, I will when I
know how it ends...

7) Do you have a particular place you like to write, or can you write anywhere?
With my fantastic old BlackBerry (hey, you can’t blame a guy for trying) I can write anywhere. Just somewhere out of the way but anywhere, really. I think that if you have a special place you limit
yourself, become anchored to it. You convince yourself that you can’t
write unless everything’s just so and I think that stifles creativity
– certainly spontaneity.

8) Are you any good at poker yourself?
Well now, that’s the question, isn’t it?