“Ante up, gentlemen.” Calvin cuts the card and then shuffles them together with practised ease. Plastic chips bounce softly on the delicate green surface. They look so pathetic, especially when you consider the price tag of one thousand dollars that each has been assigned by the gathering.
It’s taken me plenty of hard work to get to this table. These are real players, and I don’t just mean in poker. I am surrounded by some pretty dodgy characters. I’m not saying they are all crooks, but then I lie with every breath I take. “Darnell, you in?” The white-suited hardman stares me down as if not getting involved in this hand is an insult to his whole family. I toss a couple of chips in, matching the others.
I cast my gaze around the faces that sit within the circle of light that glares down onto the table, keeping the rest of the room in darkness. Each is a sinister caricature of ill-gotten gain. From the smart Calvin to the singlet wearing Marco, and everything in between. “Deuces wild, and no one gives a shit about pairs,” our dealer tells everyone as he flicks the cards through the curls of cigar smoke. I pause, casting my eyes up like I’m praying for something decent, and then slide up my cards. I immediately give my tell. I play with my ear, acting like it’s a subconscious tic as I take in the reasonable cards. An eight and a nine, plus a two, five, and king. Not bad. Not great, but I’ve had much worse during the game. At least that’s what the others think.
The betting follows. These guys play big. They have plenty of clout behind them. For me, it’s tough chucking out the chips that I do to keep me in the game. It took plenty of effort to raise the stakes just so I could sit at the table, and I had to do it discreetly. I couldn’t do it too dishonestly. I didn’t need to make any enemies. Not at this stage, anyway. That can come later. Plus, I certainly don’t want to have to explain to my newly appointed and very strait-laced Campaign Manager what I was doing, swindling thousands of dollars just so I could sit at a gambling table with a group of undesirables. She would have a fit.
With everyone still in the game, the process of discarding cards commences, and I set my expression accordingly. Grim determination that my luck is going to change at some point tonight. It’s fooling some. Others aren’t so convinced, but I need that too. If my gambit is to work, I need a healthy mix of scepticism at this stage of the game. “How many?” Calvin asks me. I hesitate and look at my cards again, sucking at my lower lip for a moment.
“Can I have two?” I ask, discarding the eight and nine. He can’t keep the smirk off his face as he lets me know that he approves of this move more than when I got rid of four cards last hand. I ignore the taunt and check out my new cards. I’ve been rewarded with a replacement nine and another king. We all know our dealer’s opinion of pairs, and most of the others agree. These are men who take the game seriously. They give their all to it, just like they do with everything else in their lives. They approach it with a poker face and a plan. They are rarely outfoxed, but there are always exceptions.
“I fold.” Sylvester, a hulking monster of a man, ditches his cards. He’s staring at me as he does. I grin blankly at him as if my cards suddenly got so much better.
“Maybe you should pack up early. Cut your losses.” Marco mocks from across the table. He takes a long draw from his cognac, never breaking eye contact with Sylvester. “Your luck has been bad all night.”
“It’s not my luck.” The large gorilla shifts back, his concealed weapon clear underneath his blazer. “I’m being put off my stride. New faces make me uncomfortable.” I’m staring intently at my cards, so he thinks I miss the look he gives me.
“New faces. Old. It’s all money.” Marco lectures as he swaps one card. He’s done that each of the last three rounds, and it hasn’t worked.
“Easy for you to say,” Sylvester grumbles as he stares at his dwindling pile of chips.
“Ah, don’t be such a sore loser.” Anton’s teeth catch in the light as he reprimands his colleague. “You took more than enough of our legal eagle the other day.” All attention is now riveted on Sylvester.
“Friends in high places, eh?” Marco leers and tilts an imaginary hat. I flash him a grin, showing a little delight at the mocking. He doesn’t bite, but I don’t expect him to.
“You can talk,” Calvin interjects. “What about the company you keep on the golf course?” All eyes now swivel towards Marco. The man sweeps back his long hair and slowly meets each and every look.
“So I golf with the guy who runs the bank. I knew him in high school. What of it?”
“Bet he gets a good interest rate, right?” I just manage not to cringe as the words come out of my mouth. I’m eyeballed by everyone and respond by clamping my lips together tightly.
“Are we playing poker or comparing little black books?” Salvador, the oldest member of the game, finally pipes up. He gestures his large Cuban between the players as he rasps, “He knows lawyers. He knows money men. Who cares? Let’s get on with this.”
“Money guys are better than god damn lawyers,” Marco practically spits, and I snigger. It’s childish, and I get another look.
“Who invited this clown?” Salvador immediately demands, pointing the burning end of his cigar directly at me. “Kid, you’re pissing me off.” There’s a sucking of air through cheeks. It seems like I’ve pushed a button few have ever managed to.
“I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Well, you’re ruining a perfectly good game.”
“See, I told you,” Sylvester grouches, leaning further back, the soft sound of wood splintering easing up from his chair.
“Let’s sort the next round of bets,” Calvin says all business. I’d expect nothing less from the man who brought me here. He didn’t want to, but then he couldn’t refuse me. Not unless he wanted me to share some very personal secrets.
“What the hell do you do, anyway?” Marco demands, his free hand wrapping around his bourbon.
“Me?” I look innocently at him. “I’m sure you aren’t interested in me.” They all are. I’m not acting the way they would have expected. It’s unsettling them.
“Yes, fucking you.” There’s another collective intake of breath.
“Haven’t you heard I’m running for mayor?” I needlessly shuffle the cards round in the ensuing silence, then slowly look up. “Is there a problem?”
“If you’re a politician,” Calvin intones, “What the hell are you doing here?” Good cover. Very impressive.
“Yeah.” Marco throws in, one of his hands now below the table.
“Usually, those in charge of the city don’t give us a fair chance at keeping our money.” Salvador’s eyes narrow to slits. With the wafting cigar smoke, it makes him look especially agitated. “Or, based on your skills so far this evening, payout so easily.”
“What can I say?” I try to ease the tension with a cocky grin. “New administration?”
“Bullshit,” Marco spits. “You wouldn’t be at this table if you wanted to be in office. No one would be seen with us if they had political aspirations.”
“Maybe he’s fundraising.” Calvin intones with a chuckle.
“The election is in a few months,” drawls Anton, rubbing his fingers around the top of the untouched drink before him. “Why would you be trying to raise money now?”
“Aren’t we just having a fun game?” I ask innocently.
“He is and all.” Sylvester gestures at his smartphone.
“I thought we said no phones while we’re playing.” Salvador glowers at the mountain of a man.
“I’d folded. I’m not in this game,” Sylvester replies.
“It’s a round. The game is the whole thing, dumbass.” Anton riles the gorilla, but he doesn’t respond.
“Who cares?” demands Marco. His hand hasn’t moved from beneath the furniture. “This guy’s messing with us.”
“He really is running for mayor,” Sylvester snaps, flashing my campaign shot round. “He’s telling the truth.”
“Red or blue?” Marco wants to know.
“Neither of them.” My new PR man continues. “Says here he’s independent.” No one seems to know what to say until Anton finally fixes me with a stare.
“But, as we said, no politician is going to be caught dead playing with us. Right?”
“He’s not actually elected yet,” Salvador says. “Things must be desperate if he thinks we are the ideal people to take money from.”
“This is a high-stakes game, isn’t it?” I try to look innocent.
“And you are not very good at it.” The old man indicates my small pile of chips. “If I were you, I’d take what I have left, put it in the bank, and maybe try again in twenty years to run this city. That’s the only way you’ll have enough money to run and win, especially against the big parties.”
“Why’s that?” I’m casual.
“If you have to ask that, then you don’t belong in politics.” Salvador pours pity on me.
“Well, I don’t get it either,” snaps Anton. “Explain it.”
A weary hand slowly lays down his cards.
“When you’ve been around a few years, you’ll understand better, but, simply put, you need deep pockets to fight the likes of the big parties. We are talking a lot of money, probably more than is at this table. More than you can afford.”
“Please,” snorts Anton, taking a tiny sip from his glass. “This is my allowance. I got plenty more where this came from.”
“Enough to get someone elected to office?” Calvin speaks up now. He takes in the room.
“What are you talking about?” The young upstart juts out his lip.
“Think about it. What do real politicians do? They get money from their mates to make sure they get the top job. Then they return that money, with interest.”
“You are talking about favours?” Marco observes, looking very sceptical. His hand has reappeared above the table, however.
“But that’s all planning permission and shit. Ain’t nothing that’s going to help us.” Anton adds.
“Really?” Calvin is warming to his idea. Or at least the others think it is. “There’s not one of us that wouldn’t benefit from having a favour from the guy running the city in their back pocket.” Glances are exchanged and unspoken thoughts shared.
“It’s not really our thing,” Marco says.
“Surely that works for us,” Salvador nods towards me, “and him.”
“But can you really do it?” Sylvester asks, cracking his knuckles. I nod slowly, a half-smile tugging at my lips.
“My team has full confidence in my ability to win.” In fact, my Campaign Manager thinks nothing of the sort. She’s working on it, but I wouldn’t even be considered an outside runner at the moment.
“Let’s say we invest. Give you some money. What do we get in return?” Marco asks, laying down the gauntlet.
“What do you want?” I shift and straighten, giving them a flash of who I really can be. It draws two grins.
“What if we don’t know? Yet.” Salvador shows why he’s lasted so long in this game. I’m amazed they’ve never had the balls to try this before. They’ve got plenty of the administration, and others, in their pocket, yet they never seem to have gone after the top job. Clearly, that opportunity needed to come to them.
“Why not come see me when you do?” There is a stunned silence.
“And you guarantee you’d help us out. No matter what.” There is a lot of greed in Salvador’s words and clear intent in his eyes as he takes a long draw of his cigar.
“I have always helped those who have looked out for me.” That’s not true. There are plenty of people I’ve thrown under a bus for my own good. I might be trying to turn over a little bit of a new leaf. Well, sort of, but my history is less than spotless. “Have you thought about what I could do? What your money could buy you?”
“You know what? I’m in.” Marco stares round at the others. “What have we got to lose? Think of what we could gain. You going to invest? Come on, guys.”
“Hell yes.” Anton’s enthusiasm is infectious, and first Sylvester, then Salvador, agree. Everyone looks at Calvin, who sighs.
“Fine, but can we play poker now?” I rise, chucking my cards into the centre of the table. “Aren’t you playing anymore?”
“Wouldn’t you expect your chosen candidate to be out, winning votes?” I get a few grins as I start to step away.
“What about your chips?” Anton asks.
“Small change now, isn’t it?”
I walk away, feeling very content. They fell for my ruse. They thought it was all about the money. That was important, but I also needed their commitment to my cause. The five of them have some of the largest workforces in the city. They have the ear of many. With them behind me, I have just bought myself a hell of a lot of support and resources. A word here and there will help move my efforts forward nicely. They have invested their money, but now I’m their asset, and they will do everything they can to get me into a poll position. Now I just have to worry about the rest of the city.