The Red Maria
July 13, 2012
— Betting On Cards, Black Maria, Card Games, Con Artists, Find The Deuce, flash fiction, Follow The Lady, Gambling, Holiday Story, Les Trois Perdants, Queen Of Hearts, Shill, short story, Stooge, Three Card Marney, Three Card Monte, Three Card Shuffle
by Jude Ellery
“Ah, señor, you come have a play?”
The man dealing the cards was old but had a lively face. His hands certainly defied the apparent feebleness of their stretched, translucent skin, sending the cards flitting across the table. As one bony claw swept back his thinning hair, the other continued to conduct an elaborate dance on the red cloth.
“No, thanks. Just passing.”
I stayed for a second, though. This was probably some sort of local custom, a traditional game maybe. I reached into my bumbag to locate the Olympus.
“No, please, señor. No picture.”
Strange, but I obeyed. Decided I’d just watch this hand play out, try to figure out the rules, then look it up later on the Blackberry and play a few hands with Julie back at the villa. Couldn’t be too complicated; there were only three cards on display.
The hands continued to dance and the cards followed, like marionettes on invisible string. Finally they came to a rest and onlookers slapped down wads of notes. The biggest pile landed next to the middle card. It was flipped over. A deuce. The others followed suit. Both queens.
“A two, it’s a win, well done amigos.”
The old man matched the punters’ bets, summoning up the money from somewhere and thrusting it toward the groping hands. Only one man had misplaced his bet.
“Sorry, amigo. Better luck next time, hey?”
The amigo didn’t stay for another hand, though. He turned and trudged off in the direction I had come, leaving a gap in the circle. I stepped forward. See if I could track the deuce this time. Looked pretty easy, despite the speed at which the cards interchanged.
The old man flipped the cards onto their faces and spun the merry dance again, this time humming a tune. When it reached its finale, he ended the dance with a grandiose flourish. As he did so, the corner of the card nearest me flipped up for a split second, revealing a black two. The old man’s wink caught my eye. Or perhaps he was just squinting against the sun sitting on my shoulder.
Bets were slammed down again. This time there was an even split, between the middle card and the card furthest away from me. Nobody had backed the winner.
“You not going to bet, señor?”
I hadn’t planned on betting. I reached inside my jacket pocket. Found a handful of scrunched notes that had been my change from lunch. I’d paid with a hundred; I’d only had a sandwich. Slowly, I unravelled the bundle and placed them down next to the winning card. The other punters frowned.
Their frowns grew thicker as the two black queens were laid upon their backs, leaving my deuce of spades to glint in the sun as it revealed itself. The old man paid my winnings and made the rest of the money disappear.
“Find the deuce to win, amigos. Here, move aside if you no bet, please. Let in the new guy.”
Another holiday-maker had noticed the crowd. He stepped in next to me as another of the locals walked off, his stack evidently diminished. The new guy asked me the rules. I explained. He immediately reached inside his beige jacket.
“Sounds like a cinch, mate. Want to pair up, work together? We could clean up in ten minutes.”
I found ten more notes in another pocket, reserved for my taxi ride home, and together we won the next six hands, each time doubling our money. If I lost track of the deuce, my partner spotted it, and vice versa. The locals weren’t so lucky. A couple of them looked drunk and were guessing. Another kept getting fooled by the dummy switch that the old man employed at the end of the dance.
The dealer checked his wristwatch.
“OK amigos, time running out. No small bets, forty minimum now.”
No problem. We’d accrued ten times that already. We won the next two hands. A couple of the others had started to copy our bets now.
The dealer checked his watch again.
“Minimum sixty. Dinner time soon, amigos.”
“Screw this,” whispered my partner, “we’ve won every hand. Let’s just stick it all down, double up, then go before he packs up.”
I nodded. I stared at the next dance so hard my eyes could’ve bored a hole in the table. The deuce jumped from one side to the other, then back to the middle. The pattern repeated three times, then, just as it was about to finish, the table was rocked as someone at the back shoved their way into the inner ring.
“Hey, guys, settle, settle. I start again.”
The dealer conducted a simpler dance this time, clearly annoyed at the interruption. The deuce landed in the middle. I whispered to my pal. He agreed. We slapped the full five hundred down. Every other player followed our lead. There must’ve been over a thousand.
A grey hand nonchalantly flipped over our winner.
A queen. The queen of hearts.
I stared at the face looking up at me. A flat Mona Lisa expression stared back.
A shout came from behind. One of the locals was keeping guard on the street corner. He repeated the cry.
The old man, my partner and the other punters scattered. In an instant the street was empty but for me and the table. The sun ducked behind a cloud as a cold wind hit me, but my face was hot and red. I felt like I’d just been slapped hard around the chops. I looked both ways. No sign of any police.
I picked up the other two cards. The two black queens.
It was going to be a long walk back to the villa.
The Red Maria by Jude Ellery is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License