Simon Riske did not like losing money.
Seated at the center of a card table in the high rollers’ room at Les Ambassadeurs, London’s most exclusive gaming establishment, he peeked at his cards, then lifted his eyes to the dwindling stacks of chips before him. He wondered how much longer his bad luck could continue.
“Well,” said Lucy Brown, seated at his shoulder so she could view his cards. “What do we do?”
“What do you think?”
“Both cards are different.”
“So they are.”
“Neither match the cards in front of the dealer.”
Lucy screwed up her face and Simon allowed her a moment to figure things out.
It wasn’t normal for players to discuss their hands, especially when large sums of money were at stake. But Lucy was young and blond and pretty, and upon sitting down, Simon had explained to all present that he would be teaching her a thing or two about poker. The other players—all male—had taken a peek (some discreet, some not so) at Lucy’s black dress, her figure, and her blue eyes. If anyone had voiced an objection, Simon hadn’t heard it.
“Fold?” said Lucy.
“Fold,” he said, sliding his cards to the center of the table.
“Darn,” said Lucy.
Simon had a more colorful word in mind. Instead, he offered his best “not to worry” smile and signaled for a drink: a Fanta for Lucy and a grapefruit and soda for himself. Alcohol and gambling were as combustible as matches and gasoline.
It was an ordinary evening at Les A (as the club was known to habitués). Downstairs, a lively crowd milled about the gaming tables, the atmosphere one of a posh Georgian country house. The play was spread evenly among roulette, blackjack, and baccarat. Slot machines were the province of the lower classes and strictly verboten.
But the real action took place in the private rooms on the second floor. It had been Simon’s plan to observe from afar while explaining the rules of the game to Lucy. The idea vanished approximately five seconds after he witnessed a player win a five-thousand-pound pot on a weak hand. Being a modest and unassuming sort, Simon had reasoned that he could do better. That was two hours and twenty thousand pounds ago.
“Another hand,” said Lucy, cheerily. “Our luck’s bound to change.”
Simon looked at her expectant gaze, her adventurous posture. Lucy was twenty-three and gifted with what some might, in the polite confines of Les Ambassadeurs, call a curvy figure. Like most women her age, she liked showing off her assets. Simon’s relationship with her was purely platonic, somewhere between father and friend. It was nebulous territory. In fact, he was her employer. Lucy worked as an apprentice in his automotive repair shop, where she was learning to restore vintage Italian sports cars, primarily Ferraris, with a Lamborghini thrown in here and there. In a sense, she was his own restoration project. But that was another story.
As for himself, Simon was dressed in a black suit and white open-collar shirt, both fresh from the cleaner. His nails were neatly trimmed and he’d spent ten minutes scrubbing them with steel wool to clean the grease from beneath them. He collected cuff links, and tonight, for luck, he’d chosen his favorites, a pair he’d been given by MI5, the British security service, as a thank-you for a job undertaken on its behalf a year earlier. His eye fell on his puny stack of chips and he scowled. So much for talismans. His hair was in the sleekest order, cut short so in need of a brush, never a comb, which was the polite way to say that it was receding faster than the Greenland ice shelf. Unlike the man a few places to his left—a wan unsavory sort who’d taken too much of Simon’s money—he’d shaved and treated himself to a splash of Acqua di Parma. His bespoke lace-ups were polished, and only his beryl-green eyes shone brighter.
But all his finery couldn’t disguise his true nature. Simon had spent too much time on the wrong side of the tracks to ever be a real gentleman. Some things you could never wash from beneath your nails.But all his finery couldn’t disguise his true nature. Simon had spent too much time on the wrong side of the tracks to ever be a real gentleman. Some things you could never wash from beneath your nails.
“Well?” Lucy demanded, her lip thrust out petulantly.
“That’s plenty for tonight,” said Simon. “We’ve done enough damage.”
“But you still have some chips.”
“The idea is to leave with a few in your pocket,” he said. “More rather than less.”
Lucy appeared crestfallen.
“There’s just enough to buy us a fancy dinner,” he continued. “How about the Ivy?”
“That’s for old people.”
“It’s the princes’ favorite place.”
Simon considered this, realizing that “old” for Lucy meant anyone over twenty-five. “How about fish-and-chips at the pub round the corner?”
“I’m not hungry.” Lucy crossed her arms and pouted. It was an inviting pout and Simon felt sorry for her boyfriend.
“One last hand,” he said. “But I mean it.”
Lucy brightened, clutching his arm and scooting closer. “We’re going to win. I know it!” She kissed his cheek and Simon said that was close enough and scooted her back a few inches.
It was then that the tenor of the evening took a dramatic turn.
Simon ponied up his chips. The cards were dealt. Simon’s were as miserable as usual. The players called and raised and called again. The dealer tossed out the last cards.
And that was when Simon saw it again. A flick of the wrist. A rustle of the sleeve. A flash of white. The player two seats to his left—the unkempt man who’d been winning the entire evening—was cheating. Twice now—Simon had caught it. The man was good, a professional, or “sharp,” in the parlance, but Simon knew a thing or two about cards himself, and about unfair advantages.
“What is it?” Lucy nudged him, sensing something amiss.
Lucy held his gaze and he gave her the subtlest of looks—eyes harder, jaw steeled—and she looked away, knowing better than to ask any questions. If he ever had a daughter, he hoped she’d turn out something like Lucy, though he’d never in his life allow her to go out dressed as she was.
Simon signaled to the server. “Jack Daniel’s,” he said. “Straightaway.”
Lucy tugged at his sleeve. “You said only a fool drinks while gambling.”
Lucy nodded urgently.
“That was before we lost your annual salary.”
“Maybe we should go.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “Not when we’re just starting to have fun.” He turned to the dealer. “Five thousand pounds . . . no, make it ten.”
The dealer shot a discreet glance at Ronnie, the casino boss, who stood at the door. Ronnie was a friend. He and Simon played on the same rugby team on Saturdays during the fall. He was forty, tall, and dapper in a white dinner jacket, red carnation in his lapel. A black Clark Gable with the same gambler’s mustache and rakish air. Ronnie nodded, shooting Simon a cautionary look, then left the room.
Ten stacks of chips came Simon’s way.
The server arrived with his cocktail. Simon stole it off the tray and downed it.
“Another,” he said, returning the empty to the tray, flipping the server a fifty-pound chip for good measure. “And one for my friend, too.”
Lucy took a judicious step away from Simon. She’d worked with him for three years. She knew his moods. She knew when a bomb was about to go off.
Simon noted the cheat shift in his chair, the corners of his mouth lift in anticipatory delight.
The dealer called for bets. Simon ponied up five hundred pounds, the minimum.
There were two ways this could go. He could wait and take matters into his own hands, or he could act now, expose the cheat, and let Ronnie sort things out.
Simon preferred the first choice. A confrontation in the alley followed by a full and frank exchange of views. He would take back his money and the cheat would pick himself up off the ground and get to the hospital to look after his missing teeth and broken bones.
But, of course, there was Lucy to think of.
The game progressed. For once, Simon had a decent hand. He called and raised and called and raised.
The dealer turned over the last card, known as “the river.” An eight of spades.
Simon was holding two kings and an eight of hearts. The eight of spades gave him two pair. His best hand all evening.
The room went quiet, the only noise the clack clack clack of the roulette ball skipping across the wheel in the outer room.
The player next to Simon tossed in his cards. “I’m out.”
“Raise two thousand pounds,” said Simon.
The man next to him tossed in his cards. “Out.”
“Call,” said the cheat, picking up four blue chips and tossing them into the pot.
It was the moment of truth.
“Two pair,” announced Simon. “Kings and eights.”A flick of the wrist. A rustle of the sleeve. A flash of white. The player two seats to his left—the unkempt man who’d been winning the entire evening—was cheating.
Simon’s eyes went to the cheat, who coolly deflected the gaze. To his credit, the man didn’t flinch. One hand went to his kingdom of chips, fingers racing between spires, touching each in turn. It was a distraction, a motion to lure the eye. He lifted the cards off the table. Fanned them deftly. And in the downward motion he made the switch. A flick of the wrist. A rustling of the cuff. A flash of white, though this time his motion was so expert that even Simon, eyes trained on him, did not catch it.
“Full house,” the cheat announced, spreading his cards on the table. Shouts went up. Exhortations of amazement and disbelief.
“Damn,” said the player to Simon’s right. The other players simply shook their heads.
And as the cheat extended his hands for the pot, Simon lashed out and grabbed one wrist, closing his fingers around it in a vice. Their eyes met. Instead of protesting, of calling out Simon, the man stood, wrenching his hand free, the violent motion knocking over his chair. He stumbled backward, head turned, plotting a way out.
Simon was up, too, and a half step behind. A dozen people ringed the table. All remained glued to the spot, their expressions as immobile as their feet. The cheat shoved the man nearest him hard enough to topple him into the woman behind him. The two fell unceremoniously to the floor. He dashed through the gap between them and out the door, heading toward the staircase that descended to the main floor. Simon gave chase, leaping over the two, pausing at the top of the stairs before vaulting the balustrade and landing in the center of the blackjack table eight feet below. He jumped to the floor, cutting off the cheat’s path. Seeing his escape ruined, the man slowed. He started left, then went right, then stopped altogether.
Simon crashed into him before the man could make it a step. Simon led with his shoulder, aiming for the sternum but striking the man’s collarbone, feeling it crack as they hit the floor. The man grunted, his face inches from Simon’s, and Simon saw that he had bad teeth and worse dental work, and his breath reeked of the brandy Alexanders he’d been drinking all night.
But if Simon expected him to give up, he was mistaken. A knee to the groin signaled his resistance, followed by a head butt glancing off the bridge of Simon’s nose. Stunned, breathless, and momentarily paralyzed, Simon was unable to stop the man from climbing to his feet. In desperation, Simon threw out a hand and grasped hold of his ankle. Unfortunately, it was the wrong ankle and belonged to a horrified Asian woman. The woman screamed and her cry roused Simon. He was on his feet as the cheat navigated his way through the crowd of gamblers.
By now security had mobilized in response to the incident. Two men in maroon jackets blocked the only path out of the casino. The cheat spun and pointed at Simon. “It’s him,” he said in accented English whose origin Simon would only place later.
The guards hesitated long enough for the cheat to lash out with a cosh, striking the first man squarely on the jaw, dropping him, before backhanding the second, the cosh caroming off his temple. His route to the entrance clear, the cheat bolted. He grabbed at the door handle, pulling it toward him, unaware that Simon was close behind. In England, exit doors pivot outward. The door didn’t budge. At that moment, Simon had him. He grabbed the collar of his jacket and yanked the man backward. Ready for a blow, he ducked as the cosh cut a path above his head, noting that a nail extended from the business end of the leather cudgel. Simon thrust an open palm upward, landing it on the man’s jaw, snapping his head backward. His other hand latched on to the man’s wrist. He dropped to a knee, wrenching the wrist and the arm attached to it, with all his might. There was a pop—loud as a champagne cork—as the shoulder dislocated. The man cried out. The cosh dropped into Simon’s hand and he spun it so the nail was facing outward. It was a killing weapon.
“No!” a man shouted. “Simon, stop!” It was Ronnie, the casino boss, emerging from his private office across the floor, barreling toward him.
Simon didn’t hear him, or didn’t want to. He wanted to punish the man, to hurt him badly. Turning, he lashed out toward the cheat’s undefended face.
A woman screamed. It was Lucy. He saw her from the corner of his eye. The nail stopped a millimeter from the man’s eye.
“You got lucky,” said Simon, throwing the man against the wall. “Say thank you to the lady.”
The cheat said nothing. His silence riled Simon all over again and he hit the man in the stomach. “I won’t ask again.”
The man fought for his breath, his eyes cursing Simon. His gaze shifted, focusing on something . . . or someone.
Simon began to turn as a fist slammed into his kidney. It was a professional punch, knuckles first, delivered with force and accuracy. A second punch followed to the opposite side, harder still.
Simon bent double at the waist, tears fouling his vision. That was that. He was officially out of the game. TKO.Simon didn’t hear him, or didn’t want to. He wanted to punish the man, to hurt him badly. Turning, he lashed out toward the cheat’s undefended face.
He dropped to one knee, aware of a commotion around him—Ronnie going after the cheat and his secret accomplice—but not much else. He tried not to move, the pain exquisite and relentless. He heard Lucy shout, “Stop him! Don’t let him leave! Come back, you fucking thief!”
They left Les Ambassadeurs an hour later. Simon walked out the front door, pushing it, not pulling, under his own power. His car was brought up and he held the door for Lucy, declining her offer to drive. Once behind the wheel, he made a circuit of Sloane Square and headed east toward Lower Grosvenor Place.
“You’re not taking me home,” said Lucy. “Not after all that.”
Simon kept his eyes on the road. He was in no mood to take orders. His side ached like hell. He’d washed up and used the men’s room. As expected, there was blood in his urine. It wasn’t the first time. If it persisted, he’d see a doctor. His head throbbed and there was a noticeable knot above the bridge of his nose. Hoping to keep it from swelling, he’d pressed an old fifty-p coin against it for a minute, then given up. Que será, será. But it was his pride that hurt worst of all. He’d brought the operations of London’s best gaming house to a halt only to allow the cheats who’d robbed him of twenty thousand pounds to escape. The loss was hypothetical. The cheats hadn’t been able to pocket their ill-gotten gains. Ronnie had returned his original stake. Somehow, the thought did little to console him.
“I’m too excited to sleep,” Lucy went on. “We absolutely must do something. Where shall we go?”
“It’s eleven o’clock,” said Simon. “You’re twenty-three years old. You have work tomorrow. If I hear you set foot outside your door before six a.m. tomorrow, you can find yourself another job.”
Lucy looked at him as if he’d slapped her. “What?”
“You heard me.”
“You have no right,” she exclaimed. “I can do whatever I choose.”
Simon continued across town, thankful that traffic was only bad, not miserable. All the way Lucy carped and complained, but he said nothing more until they arrived at her flat. “Here we are. Go upstairs. Get into bed and go to sleep. It’s been enough of a night for both of us.”
Lucy unclasped her safety belt. She motioned as if she was going to start up again, then thought better of it. “Not fair,” she said, then climbed out of the car.
To her credit, she did not slam the door. Maybe she was finally growing up.
Simon waited until she was inside and had disappeared into the vestibule before slipping the car into first and making a U-turn. His home and business lay in southwest London, a stone’s throw from Wimbledon. It was a thirty-minute drive in the best of conditions. Tonight, it would be double that. But traffic didn’t play into Simon’s thinking. Not a whit.
He was too jacked up to go home. Nothing revved his juices more than a little physical violence, even if he had been on the losing end of it. All measure of good sense had gone out the window the moment he’d given chase to the cheat. At that instant, his world had boiled down to him versus the bad guy, good versus evil, though it was a question of his ego run riot, not anything so grandiose as maintaining the universe’s order. Mess with me and you’re going to pay. It was as simple as that. It was not a motto by which to live any kind of successful life. But at that moment, Simon hadn’t cared about mottoes, or, to tell the truth, anything, except catching the thief and inflicting punishment upon him.
Two hours later, those same wild and ungoverned impulses raced through his blood. If he’d been hard on Lucy, it was because he feared she shared his affinity for mayhem. He couldn’t control himself, but he could control her. He was a hypocrite. So what?
Simon pointed the car north toward Covent and the City. He rolled down the window, enjoying the warm, fetid air, the scent of the River Thames hidden somewhere inside the exhaust and grit of central London. He was navigating to that part of the map where borders lay undefined and lands undiscovered, to the dangerous and beckoning area labeled “Where Dragons Lie.”
Simon Riske headed into the night.
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