'Of course, I believe in luck,' the soldier smiled. 'If I didn't, I'd never gamble.'
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'How long have you gambled?' the other soldier asked idly.
'I was 15 when I started. Fortunately, I looked older. Perhaps 18 or 19, but still very young to join card games - poker schools. They tried to turn me away, so I showed them my roll of money. They made me welcome. Thought I would be an easy touch.
'I started with money I stole from my father's till. He ran a hardware store. I took all the bills one night when I was supposed to bank them. I gambled and hit a winning streak. The next morning, I banked what I had taken and used the balance as my stake.
'My parents thought I was attending High School, but I began cutting classes to gamble. If I went to school, I was so tired from the all-night poker session, that I couldn't concentrate on study.'
'Were you ever much of a student?' Stewart Carmody asked, pouring red wine for his companion and himself
'Not much,' Mike Devlin admitted cheerfully. 'The only subject that really interested me was the mathematics of chance. I wasn't a great sportsman either. Perhaps a reasonable pitcher - you know baseball,' he added, seeing the puzzled expression on Stewart's face. 'I figured that if I kept fairly fit, it would give me an edge over most players who smoke too much and pig out on beer and crap food.'
Mike sipped his wine. 'This stuff's not bad,' he conceded. 'Do you drink much wine in Australia?'
Stewart shook his head. ' No, most people call it "plonk" or "rotgut". Maybe, one day we'll grow more grapes but I don't know if many people outside the Italians will ever drink it. But go on with your story. Were your parents gamblers?'
'Anything but, ' Mike said. 'Both came from what we call the Bible Belt. The town where we settled wasn't quite as rigid as some places, but vice was hidden discreetly behind lace curtains.
'My father was a working stiff who had managed to scrape together enough savings to open a shop. He was very moral. Never drank and spent most of his spare time as a lay preacher. Mum helped in both the shop and church.'
'Sounds like an ideal childhood.'
'Yes. they were - still are I guess - good people, but it was a very limited life. I wanted more. I wanted excitement. The feeling of living on the edge. The thrill of beating others in a game demanding skill, judgement and ice-cold nerves. Besides, gambling is the only thing that I do well. I have a gift for seeing the cards.'
Seeing Stewart's sceptical expression, he explained. 'I don't mean that literally. I don't have X-ray vision or anything. No, I just sense what cards other players are holding. Sometimes, I'm way out, but not often. Often, it's as though some invisible person is standing behind the players and whispering their hands to me. Mind you, it also helps if, like me, you're a good judge of character. Most people give their emotions away by a thousand tiny, subtle gestures of movement. There's a real science in that. Perhaps I should write a book on the subject. I've even got a title for it. "Body Language". Good, huh?'
I probably sound like a jerk, Mike thought. The truth is I'm not always as good as I make out in reading the warning signs.
He remembered the old 'Biltmore Hotel' in Main Street that was later pulled down for a shopping mall. The 'Biltmore' was once a good hotel, but when Mike knew it, the place had slipped to three stars, all of which were rapidly dimming. It survived on the patronage of commercial travellers, husbands cheating on their wives with girls or boys and the illegal gambling game that was played in Suite 305 four nights a week.
And it was one night at the 'Biltmore', seven years ago when Mike was 16, that everything went horribly wrong.
He was on a winning streak, playing against some of the noteable citizens of the town - men who his father treated with deference. The men were drinking heavily. As the night wore on, Mike won hand after hand. He was sober but elated when he finally pocketed the large roll of bills. Mike left the hotel from the kitchen exit around 4a.m and stepped into a darkened alley. Suddenly, he was king-hit and they were on top of him. He felt someone lift the roll. Then holding his face hard against the filthy cobblestones, they gangbanged him. He heard through his agony and shame, the fat old judge who had lost heavily that night, wheezing.,' We should finish him off. What if he tells someone?' Then Mike heard Sheriff Gray, another player, grunting close to his ear and smelt the man's filthy breath mixed with Scotch, ' No, we'll leave him. Who's going to take the word of this kid compared to us? Enjoy yourself boys. We'll teach this punk a lesson in manners he'll never forget.'
But it was not only Mike who was to regret that night. One by one, he extracted his revenge on the men during the following week. On the eighth day, he left his hometown and never returned.
A year later, he called his parents.
The phone rang for a long time. so long that Mike was about to hang up when his mother answered. She sounded old, tired and fearful.
'Ma, it's me,' Mike began.
There was a long silence on the phone.
'Ma,' he began again, then stopped as he heard her quiet weeping.
'Mikey', she finally managed, unconciously using the nickname he had always hated. 'Is it really you? Where are you?'
'I'm just here in a hotel room. Nowhere special. A long way from home.'
As he spoke, Mike glanced around the hotel room and felt depressed. The scent of the callgirl he had hired that evening and who had left an hour before, still clung in the still air. He had tried to open a window, but the sashes had been painted shut. He hired women to either settle him down before a big game or to celebrate. They brought him relief, but left him with an empty, soulless feeling.
'Mikey, what did you do? Why did you leave us?' Her voice took on a whining tone. 'Sheriff Gray came round.He said you had done some dreadful things. That you burnt down the Judge's house, things like that. It wasn't true was it? I heard him talking to your Pa. It was horrible the things he said and the language he used, him being an elder of the church and all. It was disgusting and your father should have told him so. I would have in his place. He had no place to speak like that to us. Does he think we're just poor white trash? He had no place, no place at all saying that stuff.'
'Can I speak to Dad?' Mike asked.
His mother's voice hardened. 'No, you can't. Do you have any idea what time it is? It's hard enough for your father to get any sleep these days, the way business is going. Sometimes, I think the whole town is against us because of you. Your Pa won't believe it. He always thinks the best of everyone. I heard him apologising - grovelling to Sheriff Gray that night. It made me sick to listen. He wouldn't want to speak to you anyway. He hates how he thinks you earn a living. You know how he feels - how we both feel about gambling.'
'The business is struggling?' Mike asked.
'It's failing, Mikey. I said a thousand times that your father should never have left the factory job. It was regular work. A paypacket you could count on each week. Some men are born to be businessmen. They don't extend credit to every freeloading bum in town. Your father was born to work for others. It's as simple as that. Anyway, when people stopped coming to the shop, it finally dawned on him that he better go back to the factory to put some food on the table. Except he can't. They wont employ him again. You know the factory owner's son has married into the Judge's family. We can go whistle Dixie and starve as far as the good people of this town are concerned.'
'I'll send some money,' Mike promised.
'Alright. Just address it to me. Your father is a man of principle. He wouldn't accept a handout if he knew it came from you and your gambling. Your Pa doesn't have all the bills to pay. I can't afford to be so choosey. Yes, send us some money if it makes you feel better. And Mikey, next time you ring, don't make it 3 a.m .'
'Goodbye, Ma,' Mike said resignedly. He replaced the phone.
Mike Devlin started. Someone was talking to him. He shook his head and returned to the present, which was wartime Rome. He was sitting in an almost deserted trattoria, chatting to an Australian soldier he had met by chance an hour ago.
'I'm sorry, Stewart. My mind was wandering. What did you say?'
'You said before that you were a good judge of character. What do you think my character is?'
'Well, let's see,' Mike smiled.'I always work from the known to the unknown. I know that you're from Brisbane. That you're patriotic - you signed up as soon as they began recruiting. That you're temporarily attached to the British Army, but you don't think much of the Pommy officers. You are in your early twenties. From the engagements you've seen, I judge that you're brave, but not reckless. I predict that while you've been largely overlooked to date, I think you'll be promoted several ranks before the War has ended and probably collect some gongs.'
'My character,' Stewart prompted.
Mike shrugged. 'You're not that hard to read. You're what we call in the States a White Hat. A Straight Arrow. You don't have the guile to become a successful gambler.'
'No, fortunately, I was never interested in cards. I've had the occassional flutter - a ticket in Tatts, backed some horses in the Melbourne Cup, but I hate losing money. I guess I believe you make your own luck in this world.'
'Yes,' Mike nodded. 'Perhaps you're a little bit of a - what did you call it before- a wowser. A killjoy.'
'I'm not that bad,' Stewart protested, signalling the waiter to replace the now empty carafe.
'No offence. I've met enough sleazy guys in my life, not to welcome someone who's as straight as a dye'
'So, you think I'm honest?'
'Yes. You're also probably loyal and hardworking. When you go back to Australia, I see you marrying. Almost certainly, you'll never cheat on your wife. You'll have children and be a good father. As far as jobs go, you'll become a success. Most men lack patience and never fulfil their promise. You however, will battle on, never giving up. You'll probably become rich.'
'Well, that's reassuring,' Stewart laughed. 'Of course, you could be quite wrong. I could finish up with a bullet in my head tomorrow. That could happen to either of us. I guess you're right about me being basically honest, though I'm no saint. It may be that I haven't done anything particularly dishonest simply because I've never been offered a sufficiently attractive temptation.'
'What if I offered you something that would test your character not just now, but in the months, perhaps the years to come?'
Mike nodded. 'Yes, but let me first set the scene.
'Two years ago, I was in an East Coast city. There was a major card game at a hotel. One of the players was Charles Pederson.
'Now, being an Australian, that name may not mean anything to you, but he was the son of Marcus Pederson, the electronics king. The family came out on the "Mayflower" and today is listed up near the top of our social register. For years, one read about Charles Pederson - the parties on Long Island, his glamorous wife, his jetsetter friends and opulent lifestyle in "Esquire", "Vanity Fair" and other glossies. He had everything that you and I never had and never will have.
'But Charles Pederson was also a heavy and unsuccessful gambler. His family carried his heavy losses for years, but finally they cut him free. He quickly lost his wife and friends. When I met him, he was in serious economic, mental and physical decline. It was even debatable whether he still had enough money to enter our game. He looked a mess: gaunt, smoked too much and his skin had an ashen pallour.
' I didn't like Pederson. As we sat down to play, he made a sneering remark about how honoured he felt to be playing against the great Mike Devlin. I was surprised and a little flattered that he had heard of me. His comment also made me wary. Professional gambling is not an occupation where you welcome a reputation for success. Far better that you're taken as an easy mark.
' We began to play and Pederson began to win. Then his luck changed and the money he had put on the table - almost certainly the last he had - began to disappear.
'Once, I would have taken pleasure in seeing a spoiled playboy being taken down a few notches. Now, when I looked at Pederson as he sweated and blustered through that long evening and night, I felt a strange pity for the man. I couldn't recall ever feeling that emotion before. Gambling is the ultimate competitive sport. As someone said,"It isn't enough for me to win. It's also necessary for everyone else to lose." Yet, here I was actually feeling sorry for a sucker. Looking into his bleak eyes and seeing his early arrogance and hope withering was unsettling. Pederson finally ran out of money and we all laughed when he offered credit.
' Then he challenged me to a game. Just the two of us. Something about me either irritated or attracted him - who can say.
' "You haven't anything left to bet with," I pointed out, not wanting to play him, but unwilling for the sake of my reputaion to walk away from a challenge.
' "Yes, I have," Pederson said, taking out a leather pouch. He opened the pouch and lay a beautiful gold watch - on the green baize table cloth.
' "Hey," Tony Stompi, who organised the game, protested. "That's no good. We only play for money here. If you want to play, go hock that thing and come back with the bucks."
'I looked at the gleaming watch. I had never owned a beautiful object like that. I had never wanted to own a gold watch, but seeing it there, it seemed like a confirmation of all that I had struggled for and the success I had won.
' "I'm not a watchmaker," I objected."How do I know it's the real McCoy?"
'Bert Cassidy, who I've known for years, piped up."I'm a jeweller. Pass it over."
' He turned the watch over. Taking a small screwdriver from his pocket, he flipped the back cover open.
' "Lovely movement," he commented. "Like a tiny Rolls Royce engine." He closed the back plate and passed it back to Pederson. "It's genuine," he said.
' "So, do we play?" Pederson pressed me.
' "Yes," I decided. "What's the watch worth Bert?"
'Bert Cassidy gave a ballpark figure. Tony whistled in admiration. 'Wow, I knew they cost plenty, but thousands for a ticker!"
' "This one's a collector's piece," Bert explained."Some very unique features."
' " I'll play you for six thousand greenbacks against your watch," I offered.
' "That's a steal," Bert warned Pederson.
' "Done ", Pederson agreed.
' "Sudden death," I told him. " One game of cards. Win or lose. That's it."
' "That's it," Pederson nodded.
' "Crazy," Bert muttered, then relapsed into silence. The game began.
'Pederson played well. Perhaps desperation gave him some edge, but even at his most skilful or daring, it was never enough. It was always as though someone was standing behind him, telling me his cards. Whatever he drew, I drew one better. I remember so clearly his last hand, when he flung down his cards triumphantly, believing I couldn't possibly match him. Then that look of incredulity and horror when he realised that I had trumped him.
'I lifted the watch from the table and rolled it on my wrist. It looked wonderful. I slid its leather pouch into my pocket. As the others crowded around, slapping me on the back, Pederson rose abruptly and left without a word.
' "Bad sport," Bert commented, shaking his head.
' "Guess you can't blame him," Tony reasoned. "That's the end for him. My guess is he's totally cleaned out now. It could happen to any of us."
'Later, I drew Tony aside. "Where's Pederson staying?" I asked. " I might shout him a drink."
' " 'The Excelsior'. It's a clipjoint past Central. I wouldn't bother seeing him. you wont be welcome."
'An hour after the game, I finished my last drink. I took a cab from the hotel.
'In the cab, I kept looking at the watch. I wanted to keep it. I couldn't recall wanting anything so much. I was tempted to tell the cabbie to stop. Tell him to turn back, but I kept silent. I kept remembering the misery in Pederson's eyes when he knew he had lost.
'I couldn't wound his pride by offering the watch immediately back after the game in front of the others, but I figured that maybe if I saw him privately, he might take it back. Perhaps if he was to hock the watch, it might give him enough dough to drag himself out of the hole he was in. Of course, chances were he'd feel insulted. Even worse, he might think that as well as winning, I had come to gloat over my success.
'As we drew closer to the hotel, the traffic thickened. I paid off the cab and walked the rest of the block. A crowd of onlookers had gathered outside the hotel. The police had cordoned off the entrance and an ambulance, its lights flashing, was parked on the pavement.
' "What's happened?" I asked a middle aged man avidly watching the scene. He was chewing gum and was enjoying himself.
' "Some fella took a dive from the hotel roof. Didn't stand a chance."
' "Do you know who he was?"
' "I do," a woman chimed in. "He was that man you see all the time in the glossies. A policeman told me. What was his name? You know, the playboy."
' "Charles Pederson?"
' "That's him. Hey," she added, seeing my expression. "Did you know him? Are you famous or something?"
' "I'm nobody," I replied shortly, walking away.
' "Hey mister," the woman called out. "Whoever you are, you're a hell of a lot better than the guy on the sidewalk. You're alive for one thing."
'It's curious how sometimes a complete stranger can change your life. That night, I realised that I didn't want to gamble any more. I had proved something to myself. The problem is that nothing else so far has appealed to me.
'Then I started to think about the War. I liked the irony of a joining the biggest game in town and betting my life against the house. It also offered a chance to think about what I wanted to do in peacetime. So, the next day I joined up and was posted to Italy. It's been a strange experience. I never thought about other men except as competitors, but I've made friends here. Some of these guys have put their lives on the line for me. Even more surprising, I've done the same for them."
Devlin looked into his drink. 'Aw, hell,' he said.'I'm getting maudlin. Too much of the old vino. Let's change the subject.'
Stewart Carmody nodded, 'Sure. Did you keep the watch?'
'Yes. That's what I wanted to talk about. Let me show you.'
'You've bought it here?' Stewart asked incredulously.
'Sure, but keep your voice down. The way things are here, people will slit your throat for a few bucks, much less one of these babies. Don't whisper, that's always suspicious, just keep your voice low and keep smiling.'
Mike slid a soft leather pouch from his pocket. He extracted the watch and briefly showed it to Stewart, shielding it from the sight of others.
'It's beautiful,' Stewart said.
'Mine?' Stewart gasped. 'You mean to keep?'
'No, no. I'm not that altruistic. What I'm suggesting is that you take this watch and keep it in trust for me. One day, when the War is over, bring it back to me. Will you do that for me?'
'Why?' Stewart asked bluntly.
'When I joined up, I wasn't sure what to do with the watch. It would have made more sense to leave it in the States, but there was noone I could entrust it to. My folks probably still think I'm somewhere on the East Coast, working the suckers. I don't want to contact them again. Perhaps I should have put it in a safety deposit box in a bank, but I decided to bring it with me. It amused me to think that I was carrying something worth thousands of dollars in my pocket. Of course it hasn't been easy keeping it secret, but I smuggled it through hundreds of inspections. So, why am I asking a total stranger to keep it in trust?
'Two reasons. The first is that given its history, it might be that the watch will bring me bad luck. I need all the luck I can use to get through the fighting before this War is over. Now, if you keep this watch the bad luck won't affect you because you have no personal connection to this watch. I told you I was superstitious.
'The second reason is perhaps odder. Although I don't gamble any more, I'm still interested in the workings of chance. O.K., so you're a total stranger. When I walked in here tonight, I had no idea that we were going to meet, much less that I was going to entrust my most valuable possession to you. I believe that you're honest, but I'm challenging you to put your honesty to the test. I want you to keep this watch for some time after the War ends. Wear it sometimes. Get comfortable with it. Get to really like it. Get to really regret the necessity of handing it back.
'I'll give you my address in the States. Don't give me your address in Australia. That way if you decide to hold onto the watch, I can't come to demand it back. When you think the time is right, and it could be years after the War has ended, travel to the States and return my property. I promise to show you a good time and it wil be interesting to find out how we've have changed. If you learn that I've died either in the War or later, just keep the watch.'
'But I could just as easily die in the War, so you could lose the watch anyway,' Stewart pointed out.
'That's a risk I'm willing to take. Something tells me that we'll both make it through and that one day you'll come to find me. So what do you think of my proposition?'
Stewart thought a while, then smiled. 'O.K., I'll do it.'
'Great. Let's order another carafe - maybe something better. We'll toast our long lives and eventual reunion.'
Time passed. The War ended. Both men survived.
Stewart travelled back to Brisbane where he opened an office equipment showroom. By careful planning and hard work, he grew successful, opening a chain of franchised businesses throughout Queensland. He married and had two children. But the long hours took their toll. He neglected his wife and one day after the children had grown up and moved away, his wife Grace, asked for a divorce. Stewart agreed and when he sold the business, made her a generous settlement. Grace was a vivacious, attractive woman in her early forties. Within a year, she had remarried and this time her marriage remained solid.
Stewart, by now a wealthy man, remained a bachelor. He decided not to reenter business, but to spend most of his time travelling. Like many men who survived the War, he wondered if he had been saved for some higher purpose, but was never able to find it.
So Stewart set off on a long series of explorations through Asia, Europe and his own country. In Australia, he followed the old Canning Stock Route, scuba dived off the Great Barrier Reef and sailed a hot air balloon over Alice Springs as dawn broke over the quiet desert.
One day back home, he was searching for an old insurance policy when he found Mike's watch, still in its leather pouch.
Taking out the watch, Stewart examined it, recalling his strange conversation with Mike so many years before.
Mike had been remarkably prescient in foretelling Stewart's life. He had married, fathered children and become a financial success. Where Mike had been wrong was in believing that Stewart would be tempted to keep the watch. The fact was that he had put the watch away and forgotten about it. Seeing it for the first time in many years, he felt guilty that he hadn't returned it long ago. By now, Mike must have assumed that Stewart was a thief. It was an uncomfortable thought.
Still, Stewart reasoned, it may not be too late to repair his neglect. He would travel to America, find Mike and return the watch. He wondered if he should try to contact him first, but imagining Mike's surprise and pleasure, decided to visit unannounced.
Soon after checking in to a five star hotel in Mike's city, he began his search. He found that Mike was no longer at his original address, but each place he went, he left some trace of where he was going.
Life had not been kind to Mike Devlin. Gradually, Stewart pieced together a grim picture from former friends, workmates and casual acquaintances.
True to his word, Mike had never returned to gambling. The problem was that gambling was the only occupation for which he had a talent. As the years passed, he took a long succession of poorly paid, often short term menial jobs. He remained single and turned to drink. Although not an alcoholic, he was a heavy drinker and a mean drunk. He lost jobs, friends drifted away and he moved around the city, seeking cheaper and cheaper accomodation. Now unemployed, he was now living in what was little better than a doss house.
The more Stewart learned, the more determined he became to help Mike. Returning the watch would mean a great deal. It would remind Mike that good luck could still happen. Mike could pawn the watch if he wished and make a new start. Stewart hoped that Mike would let him help start a new life. Mike could work if he wished or Stewart would give him enough to retire comfortably. Perhaps for a while they would see the world together.
It took a week of diligent searching to find Mike's latest address, but Stewart was a patient and thorough man.
As he left his hotel suite that evening, Stewart was filled with anticipation. Today, he was going to make a positive difference in another's life. He pictured knocking on Mike's door: the delay as the door was opened, the suspicion, then the surprise and pleasure as Mike recognised him.
It was drawing toward dusk, but Stewart felt that there wasn't an hour to lose.
As he walked through the darkening streets, he was thinking that the watch in his pocket, far from being the ill luck omen Mike once feared, was, in fact, a symbol of good fortune.
He was so absorbed by these pleasant thoughts that he only vaguely registered the young man who emerged from a doorway and now stood in front of him.
'So hand it over,' the man repeated, pointing a gun at Stewart.
'Hand what over?' Stewart asked blankly.
'Your wallet, money, cards, mobile phone, whatever you have. Give it all to me. Don't try to hold back anything.'
Stewart obediently handed over his possessions. He noticed that the young man was trembling. A junkie, he realised, on a hair trigger nerve.
'Is that all?' the mugger demanded.
'Yes,' Stewart lied.
The man looked at him. He saw the small gleam of triumph and relief in Stewart's eyes.
'You're lying,' he snarled. 'Give it to me.'
Stewart reluctantly drew the watch from his pocket and handed it to the man. The mugger opened the leather pouch and took out the watch.
'You bastard!' he stormed. 'You were going to hold this back.
He raised his gun and fired point blank into Stewart's face.
The last thing that Stewart saw was the watch catching the light from a street lamp. It burned like a golden fire. Then the flames died.