The noise of the club made it difficult to hear. Johnny tapped Rex on the shoulder, and shouted in his ear. “You got everything?”

Rex took off his glasses, checked the plastic film on the back of the lenses, pointed to them, then replaced them on his face, and nodded.

“You seem nervous,” Rex shouted back in Johnny’s ear.

“Yeah,” he replied, leaning over. “Just a bit.”

“Come on,” Rex said, beckoning. “Now’s not the time.”

The walked the usual route to the back of the club, and stood waiting at the entrance of the VIP bar. The security guard was busy dealing with a drunken businessman in a smart suit. They stood there, waiting.

“Eight months planning,” Rex whispered to Johnny. “We can’t back out now.”

“Yeah but…” Johnny’s mouth went dry. “Now it’s, y’know, tonight’s the night. And de Luca’s here.”

“So what?” Rex replied. “If he’s here it’s our best chance, we agreed that.”

“But you know… what happened to Frankie.”

“Yes, he’s had men killed for less,” Rex said. “That’s about the third or fourth time you’ve said that tonight.”

The security guard had finished with the drunk, who was now sitting at a table. Clearly he wasn’t drunk enough to throw out, or at least clever enough to pretend not to be.

“Ah,” the guard said, smiling. “Good evening Mr -”

Rex cut him off. “Mr Green tonight, remember?” he said, returning the smile.

“Of course,” the guard replied, opening the velvet rope for the pair to come through.. “You know the way?”

“Absolutely,” Rex said, and they stepped through the rope and walked to the private room at the back of the VIP bar.

Johnny didn’t remember the guard, but it didn’t matter. They were almost never the same, at least as far as he’d noticed. Rex seemed to know them all.

The private room had black painted walls, a grey floor, a small bar in one corner and a door to what was presumably a small storage room behind it. The only other furniture were a card table, six chairs, and a large chandelier above the table that flooded it with heat light.

The waiter, a short, balding man, came over to them and took their jackets and drinks order. Two soda waters. For now.

“We’re the first,” Rex said.

“Yep,” said Johnny, hoping the nervousness he felt wasn’t obvious.

They didn’t have to wait long, as the door opened again a couple of minutes later, and Gianni de Luca walked in.

“Good evening,” he said, his slight accent more audible than usual. “Mr Green, Mr Brown.”

“Good evening Mr Grey,” said Rex, standing up to shake hands. “It’s good to see you again. Are you feeing better?”

“Thank you,” he said, in his characteristically even, mellow tones. “Yes, I am better, thank you. Perhaps not fully recovered, but my doctor says my heart can take a little excitement, so…” he shrugged. “Here I am.”

“It’s good to see you,” Johnny said, standing and shaking hands.

“Mr Green,” he said. “It’s good to see you too.”

De Luca’s handshake felt weaker than normal. As though the man himself had lost something. Or maybe it was just Johnny’s nerves. De Luca had time to order a drink and sit down before the door opened again, and a middle-aged woman in a black dress came through.

“Ah, Miss Red,” de Luca said. “I was wondering if you would be coming tonight.”

“Mr Black told me that you were coming,” she said. “I didn’t want to miss the chance of renewing your acquaintance. And going home with a handbag full of money.”

“I hope tonight that will be my fate,” de Luca laughed.

Red ordered gin and tonic from the waiter. Her real name, Johnny understood, was Cheryl Platt. Nobody was supposed to know anyone’s real name – poker at these stakes wasn’t a game for making friends, after all – but Johnny always wanted to research. Like some of the other regulars, she was a professional gambler, even if she didn’t seem to make the big scores so often as Black did. That said, she almost never went home without making some sort of profit, even if it was only a couple of hundred. She turned on the charm as much as she could, and maybe that was a defence mechanism.

The fifth member of the party was a very fat man, dressed neatly, manicured and coiffured to perfection. He had that strange grace some fat men have, that made his weight a trophy, as though it were the only thing preventing him from floating away. Johnny nudged Rex in the ribs, and he looked up and nodded at the fat man, who smiled back jovially.

“Good evening, Mr White,” said Rex. Johnny waved.

“Good evening sir, good evening,” he said, nodding in Rex’s direction. He passed his coat to the waiter and asked for a scotch and soda. The waiter nodded, hung up the coat and went over again to the small bar in the corner.

It was another five or ten minutes before the final member of the party arrived – Mr Black; real name Tommy Emerson. He had a shaven head mainly to hide his encroaching baldness, an expensive ill-fitting suit, and ostentatious ring on one finger.

“All right lads and ladies,” he said. “Let’s play some poker.”

Emerson nodded over at the waiter, who nodded back and fetched a bottle of beer.

“Who’s brought the cards tonight?”

Johnny brought out a pack from one pocket. “My turn,” he said, and tossed them casually onto the table.

Emerson grinned, inspected them, and put them down again. It was a ritual. Everyone would inspect the unopened packet before they accepted it. Nobody had ever complained, although Johnny was never sure what would happen if someone did. Maybe they’d go home minus a few teeth. Maybe they wouldn’t go home at all.

The fat man came over, picked up the packet, turned them over a few times, looking for traces of tampering. Finally, he put them on the table.

“Excellent, sir, excellent,” he chortled. “A good brand. You do spoil us. Very fine make of cards, sir, very fine.”

“Thank you,” Johnny said.

“You never bring American cards, do you sir?”

“They’re hard to find over here,” he said. “But if I was back home, then I would.”

The fat man chucked. “Of course you would, sir, of course you would. Only natural.”

Nearly two years Johnny had been a regular at this game and the fat man still called him sir. He called everyone sir. Maybe it was a habit, or an affectation. A way of putting people off guard. Johnny had done some scouting on him, a few months ago. When he first started being a regular at these games, he’d done background research on him. This one was Prentis Boyd. He was a lawyer. Maybe not a very successful one, given that he gambled a lot. Johnny always wanted to know who he was playing against. Anything you could use always helped.

It took another fifteen minutes before the first hand was played. A small one – just a hundred. De Luca won it. He usually won the first few hands.

Emerson took his glasses out of the pocket of his suit and put them on.

“Blimey that’s better,” he said. “Didn’t know whether I had a Jack or a Joker in that last hand!”

He laughed like a donkey snorting. Miss Red looked over at him, disdainfully. It wasn’t the first time he’d done that joke. Boyd obligingly feigned amusement, muttering “very good sir, very droll indeed”, just loud enough that Emerson could hear. Emerson held his beer bottle up in the air, and the waiter nodded and opened the small drinks fridge to get another.

The second hand fell to Boyd, again for a hundred. A call from Johnny to raise the limit was met with approval and the next three hands all went to Miss Red for two hundred, a hundred and fifty and three hundred, respectively.

The hands went on, the stakes went up, and Johnny was considering whether to call or fold when Rex knocked over his glass of whisky, all over Johnny’s shirt.

“Oh man, I am sorry,” Rex said.

“It’s OK,” Johnny said, standing up.

“You’ve got my whisky all down you,” Rex said, brushing at the shirt. “That will stain.”

“I’m fine,” Johnny said. “Truly.”

“What’s going on?” de Luca asked, standing up.

“I spilled my drink,” Rex said, turning to him. “Just knocked it with my hand.”

“Sheer accident, Mr Grey,” Boyd said. “Could have happened to anybody.”

“Mind my carpets, eh?” Emerson said. “Just the underlay in here cost more than his annual salary.”

Emerson pointed at the waiter and laughed. The waiter forced an insincere smile, and Emerson held up his beer bottle again.

“Can we not have drinks at the table, huh?” de Luca asked. “Maybe just play. We can have a drink break if we really want one.”

Emerson stared at him for a moment.

“That’s a good idea,” Rex said. “Prevent clumsy people like me from… well, I apologise.”

The waiter came and collected the drinks to take them over to the mini bar in the corner. Rex moved to throw his cards into the centre.

“Just a minute,” de Luca said, putting out a hand. “I wanna see what you got.”

“Really?” Miss Red asked. “You know that’s not right.”

“He’s in the hole here,” de Luca snapped. “He’s got a thousand riding on this hand and I want to know if he did that on purpose.”

“OK,” Rex shrugged, and turned over his cards. There were four fives and a two.

“Sheesh,” Red said, throwing her cards in the middle. “That beat me.”

There were murmurs as others threw their cards in. Emerson threw his cards in face up – he had a straight. Nobody would admit to having beaten that hand.

They pushed the cards over to Emerson, who started shuffling, and Johnny breathed a little easier. The first part of their little show was over, and it had worked just as planned. Fewer drinks, more sober heads around the table. They would be relying on that soon.

Hands came and went. Johnny won a couple. Rex started to win, too.

Johnny checked his watch. Quarter to ten.

Boyd folded. “I think that’s me for the evening,” he muttered, to nobody in particular.

“I’ll see your 5K,” Emerson said, “and raise you 5K.”

de Luca smiled, raised another 5K. Red folded. Johnny raised.

“See your 10K.” said Rex. “And up 10K.”

Boyd permitted himself a little smile and leaned forward, starting to enjoy the action.

“All right,” Emerson smiled. “I’ll see your 10K. And I’ll up you another 20K.”

Rex looked across at de Luca. He nodded.

“I’ll see you, and raise you again.”

“I’m out,” Red said. “That’s too much for me.”

Rex looked across at Johnny, who placed his cards on the table and shook his head.

“All right, boys.” Rex said. “Are you ready to play properly?”

Emerson snorted. “You know I do.” de Luca nodded.

“All right,” Rex said. “Do you wanna go all in?”

Rex pulled his keys out of his pocket and threw them on the table.

“What’s that?” de Luca asked.

“My house.”

“Not worth the pot already,” Emerson said, laughing. Nobody laughed along with him.

“It’s already on the market,” Rex said, calmly pulling out an estate agent’s brochure. “Four point six million.”

He placed the paper on top of the pile. The figure was clear.

There was a silence for two, maybe three seconds, until Johnny spoke.

“You’re crazy man,” he said. His face as Rex turned to look at him was ash white. Next to him, Red had her hand over her mouth in shock.

Rex turned back to them.

De Luca grinned. “I don’t have that amount of money with me.”

“You’re good for it,” Rex said. “I’m sure. Besides, it would be a bit obvious, carrying that around with you.”

De Luca placed his cards face down into the centre of the table. “I fold.”

Johnny tried not to make his relief too obvious. Rex turned to face Emerson.

“Well?” Rex asked. “My house against your club. What do you say?”

“Nah,” Emerson scratched his nose. “You’re bluffing.

“Am I?” Rex raised his eyebrows. “Or are you afraid?”

Emerson hesitated. “What would I be afraid of?”

“Losing the club.”

“Don’t make me laugh,” Emerson sneered. “It’s worth a lot more than your poxy little house any day.”

“Are you sure you’ve read that properly?” Rex asked. “Or maybe your contact lenses have slipped.”

“You what?” Emerson said, adjusting his glasses.

“Your contact lenses.”

He took off his glasses and peeled off the films. He passed one to de Luca, and one to Johnny.

“Take a look through those,” he said.

Johnny took a brief look before passing them on. With the plastic, marks appeared all over the cards. Emerson’s hands looked like he’d been fingerpainting.

“What is this?” de Luca asked.

“This is nothing to do with me!” Emerson shouted, standing up. “This is all him, I swear it.”

“How am I the one cheating, exactly? How many hands have I won tonight?” Rex shouted.

Emerson looked round, panicking. He made a move to start up, and Boyd, angry, stood up and backed over to the door. The lawyer’s usual friendly demeanour had disappeared altogether, and right now he looked very angry. And dangerous.

The turn of a key from the other side of the room drew everyone’s attention. The waiter had locked himself in the storage room behind the bar.

Everyone’s gaze turned to Emerson now. Platt looked through the plastic at the cards, looking at the markings, and turning the cards over, trying to work out the system. De Luca was staring at Emerson, not moving.

“He’s the one cheating!” Emerson shouted, pointing at Rex. “It’s him, it’s all him, I swear it!”

De Luca turned, slowly, to Rex. “Tell me,” he said. “And this had better be good.”

“We noticed it about eight months ago,” Johnny said. “Emerson wears glasses and contact lenses.”

“So we guessed marked cards,” Rex continued. “But how? Everyone brings an unopened pack, and he wins the same whether he brings the cards or not. He even leaves the price tag on his cards so we know he bought them at the local shop.”

“So if not the cards, what?” de Luca asked.

“He’s marking the cards himself,” Platt said, still examining the cards. “Isn’t he?”

“The answer was invisible ink,” Rex nodded. “I watched him for a while and I worked it out. He keeps a pad in a pocket, marks the cards with his fingers as he gets them.”

“That’s how he gets better as the night goes on,” Johnny said. “The more cards he knows, the better he gets.”

De Luca took up one of the hands of cards and looked through the piece of plastic he was still holding.

“It’s all lies,” Emerson said. “They’re setting me up, the pair of them.”

“I see,” de Luca said, waving a hand at Emerson to be quiet. “One dot, two dots, a line.”

He looked over at Emerson. He looked back at Rex, who held out his hands. De Luca reached out, traced Rex’s fingertips with his own.

“Clean hands,” he said. “But how did you work it out?”

“The internet’s a wonderful thing,” Rex said. “He isn’t the first person to have come up with this idea. He’s not the first person to get caught, either.”

“How did it take you eight months?” Miss Red asked, looking up. “I’m curious about that.”

“The only plan we could think of that would convince everybody, where he couldn’t hide the evidence, was this,” Rex said “So we needed to know what sort of ink he used and find the plastic to see it. It took us a long time to work that out, especially as we could only try one kind of filter every week.”

“He always wears glasses,” Johnny said, pointing one thumb at Rex. “But if I suddenly turned up wearing glasses, you’d all smell a rat.”

Emerson began to chuckle, as though he’d thought of something funny. They all turned to look at him.

“What’s so funny, Emerson?” Red asked. “You’ve been cheating us all for years, and now we’ve found you out and there isn’t a thing you can do.”

“No,” he said, laughing. “This is all nonsense. You’re in my club, surrounded by my security. I’m still winning.”

He stood up and held out a hand towards Boyd. The lawyer shook his head.

“Give me the key Boyd,” he said. “There’s a security guard on the other side of that door. Don’t make me ask him to come in here.”

“Do you know what I do for a living?” Rex asked.

“You what?” Emerson snapped, turning to look at him. “Do you think I care what you do for a living? So long as you make enough money to keep me in booze and coke I couldn’t give a damn, and there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, that you or anybody else can do about it.”

“Well you should,” Rex said. “I work for JPX security.”

“And I care about that, why, exactly?” Emerson mocked, anger turning him red.

“Because JPX have been doing the security for this club for years,” Johnny said, and Emerson turned his head slightly to face him. “It’s how Rex even came to know about this game. And it’s how Rex has been hand picking the security guys for your game for the past year.”

“I hand picked our man tonight,” Rex said. “It’s his last chance before he gets fired for being a bit rough at his last regular gig. I told him he does exactly what I tell him and I’ll see him right. If I ask him to break your legs, he’ll probably do both your arms too, just to show how grateful he is that I gave him a second chance.”

Emerson ground his teeth but said nothing.

“Face it, sir, they’ve hooked you like a fish.” Boyd chuckled. “Hook, line and sinker.”

“All right,” Emerson said, thinking for a moment. He reached into a pocket and brought out a large wad of money and threw it on the table. “Why don’t you all share in the spoils and we’ll call it a night, eh? I was getting a bit fed up of these games anyway to tell you the truth.”

“I don’t think so,” de Luca said, calmly.

“It’s not an apology, even,” Johnny said. “Never mind paying back what you stole.”

“Hold on,” Emerson waved a finger at Johnny. “Nobody said nothing about me stealing, did they?”

Rex turned to de Luca. “Would you like to handle this one, Mr Grey? I think everyone around this table would be happy for you to clear up this matter as you see fit.”

“Thank you,” de Luca said, making a small bow. “You flatter me.”

“No,” said Emerson. “No, no, please. Don’t. Not him.”

“I’m agreeable to that,” Boyd said. “Very agreeable.”

Red shrugged. “In for a penny, in for a pound.”

“I should mention that none of you were here tonight,” de Luca said. “Do you understand me.”

“What about the waiter?” Johnny asked. “I’m sure he’s listening at the door.”

“Yeah,” Emerson said. “What about him? I could shout for help, you know.”

“You shout for help and we’ll let my friend in,” Rex said. “And in about five minutes, you’ll wish you hadn’t got out of bed this morning.”

Emerson gritted his teeth and sat down. “You lot are going to regret this, you know. There’s CCTV in here.”

“No,” said Rex. “There isn’t. Nor are there microphones. That’s why we play in here. Because you know as well as I do your invisible ink will show up on CCTV when it doesn’t to the naked eye.”

Emerson pointed to a corner. Johnny went over and pulled down the camera.

“Dummy,” he said, pulling the plastic apart. “No wires. Just a red LED and a double A battery.”

“You think you’ve thought of everything, don’t you?” Emerson sneered.

“No,” Rex said. “You were the one who thought of it. We just followed you.”

The post “Cards” first appeared on and is Copyright © Simon Collis 2017. All rights reserved.