The Monarchy of Harak
In the capital city of Othana
The four men sat in the otherwise empty tavern calmly playing poker at a large round table. They ignored the nearly constant chatter of automatic weapon fire from outside and the occasional barrage of artillery fire that every so often landed so close that dust showered from the ceiling.
Half-inch thick steel shutters covered all the windows, testifying that this wasn’t the first time the tavern had seen violence of this sort. The main double doors were shut and locked as well as the delivery entrance in the rear.
An impressive stack of currency rested in the center of the table. Currency from half a dozen North African nations as well as American money, Euro coins and banknotes. Ashtrays were filled to overflowing with cigarette butts and cigar stubs. Bottles of various alcoholic beverages were within easy reach at the elbows of the players.
The dealer looked around the table. Miguel Poulin’s most distinguishing feature was the comically prominent mustache that he cared for and fussed over the way most other men cared for and fussed over their automobiles or their first born. But there was nothing comical about his reputation. Poulin was known as a highly dangerous and capable mercenary with a strategic mind of frightening intensity and laser-like precision. “How many cards, boys?”
The man to his left examined his cards with the expression of a sixth grader contemplating a math test he didn’t study for the previous night. He removed a surrender handkerchief from a hip pocket, wiped his lips and went back to examining his cards intently. Freddy Liddick wasn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer when it came to a lot of things but it was generally acknowledged in the mercenary community that when it came to marksmanship, there were few better. Hitting a fly on a wall from two thousands yards away was ridiculously easy for Liddick. He and Poulin worked together as a team and had done so for the past nine years
“Freddy? It’s not brain surgery. It’s poker.”
“Awright! Awright! Gimme three, dammit!” Liddick threw in his three and got three in exchange.
The tavern shook as another barrage of artillery fire thundered, causing the lights to dim and the table to jiggle. Bottles fell from the shelves behind the bar to smash on the floor.
A half empty bottle of Demerara rum fell from the table but was saved just scant inches from hitting the floor by a hand that moved in a blur and caught it. The hand calmly replaced the bottle on the table in the exact spot it had fallen from.
“Damn that was close!” Liddick looked around nervously. “You think they’d let up awreddy! Ain’t nothing gonna be left of the damn city for them to take if they keep it up!”
Poulin waved a hand. “They’ll stop the shelling soon. The Monarchy’s lost and everybody knows it. This is just a last kick in the ass to remind them to hurry up and get the hell out. The Freemen’s Commonwealth is anxious to take over so they can start oppressing the people.”
The fourth man, the one who had rescued the bottle of Demerara sat in shadow and so his features were obscured. But the glowing cherry red tip of the cigar he smoked did a little jig in the darkness as he manipulated it to one side of his mouth so that he could speak clearly: “The Freemen’s Commonwealth? I thought they were The People’s Cooperative Collective
Poulin shook his head. “That was two days ago. And two days before that they were The Liberation Alliance.”
The man with the cigar chuckled.
Poulin turned back to the third man. “You playing or what?”
Mike Radford glared at Poulin. Tall, wide-chested with eyes that had an uncomfortable glint in them, Radford had his own reputation. One that usually caused potential employers to stay clear of him. Radford was known for indulging in unhealthy risks. “Two,” he snapped. “We’ve been here two days now. When do you think it’ll be safe to leave.”
Poulin gestured at his cell phone on the table. “I’ve got friends who’ll give me the all-clear signal when they’ve taken the city. Relax, what’s your rush? We’ve got food, booze, smokes and we’re getting paid for sitting on our asses playing poker.”
“Just don’t like being cooped up, that’s all,” Radford grumbled as he accepted his two cards.
Poulin turned to the fourth man in the shadows. “And how many for you, friend?”
The tip of the cigar did its jig again as the man in the shadows contemplated his cards and replied; “I’ll stay with these, thanks.”
Immediately, Liddick said, “Fold” and threw his cards in.
Poulin smiled and reached for his stack of currency, threw in two thousand dollars American. “I think you’re bluffing, friend. I call.”
“Damn right he’s bluffing!” Radford snarled. “Son of a bitch is trying to buy the pot!”
The fourth man removed the cigar from his mouth. His hands were strong looking with long, almost artistic fingers. It was only by his hands that one could tell he was a black man as the shadow obscuring his features was almost ominously dark. It could have been that he deliberately chose that spot to sit in so that his features could not be read by the other players. He tapped ash from the cigar into an ashtray and poured himself a shot of rum. He casually tossed back the shot, put the glass down, picked the cigar back up and replaced it in his unseen mouth. The tip again glowed cherry red as he puffed on it.
“You think I’m trying to buy the pot then there’s one way to find out.”
Radford threw money into the pot. “I call. And I’ll raise you two thousand.”
The man in shadow reached for the money in front of him with no hesitation whatsoever. “Call and raise five thousand.”
Poulin threw in his cards. “You boys play too rough for me.
Radford grinned at the man in shadow and slapped his cards down on the grimy table. “Four of a kind, all jacks!” He gleefully reached for the pot with both hands. “Bluff that, tough guy!”
“Not so fast,” the man in shadow said calmly and placed his cards face down on the table, one by one. As he did so, Radford’s lower jaw sagged open just a little bit more until by the time the final card was on the table his mouth was completely open.
“You gotta be shittin’ me! You tryin’ to tell me you got dealt a straight flush?”
“Seems that way, don’t it?” The man in shadow leaned forward and into the light to rake in his winnings. And so his features were now plainly visible. His eyes were an unusual copper color, the color of freshly minted pennies. Women considered him handsome with his wide, mobile mouth and high cheekbones. His dark chocolate skin seemed to glow with vitality and energy. He habitually kept his curly anthracite hair cut very close to his skull in a widow’s peak.
Radford slammed a Glock onto the table. “I do believe you’ve been cheating, tough guy. I been watching you the past two days we been playin’ and you’ve been doing more than your share of winning. Nobody’s that good or that lucky.”
“You’re right,” Dillon said around his half-smoked cigar. “It’s just that you’re such a lousy player.” Unruffled by the weapon on the table he continued pulling the pot in.
“He’s right, Mike. You are a lousy player. Sit back and shut up,” Poulin said. He seemed highly amused by the whole thing.
“But he’s been cheating!”
Poulin shuffled the cards as he said, “No, he hasn’t.”
“And how do you know?”
Dillon grinned and jerked his chin at Poulin as he answered the question. “He knows because he’s been cheating.”
Both Radford and Liddick jumped to their feet, shouting and cursing.
“Miguel, I’m your partner!” Liddick wailed. “How you gonna cheat me?”
“Because the two of you are such abominable players I had to do something to keep myself interested.” Poulin looked over at Dillon. “How long have you known I was cheating?”\
“After about an hour or two of play I caught on. You’re good.”
“And you didn’t say anything?”
Dillon counted his winnings, separating the currency into neat piles according the country of origin. “Why should I? I wasn’t planning on going anywhere until the shelling stopped. And since I knew you were cheating I adjusted my playing accordingly.”
“You could have warned them.” Poulin jerked his head at the still fuming Radford and Liddick.
Dillon shrugged carelessly. “If they’re too dumb to catch on then they deserve to get took. If you’re not good enough to spot a cheat then you’ve got no business sitting down at a poker table.”
Radford spent the next minute or so giving his highly profane opinion on Dillon’s ancestry. Dillon merely continued counting his money and grinned at Radford around his cigar.
Poulin’s cell phone rang and he snatched it up. “Poulin. Yeah. Yeah. They’re both with me. Sure. Be there in about thirty minutes.” Poulin broke the connection and slipped the phone into a breast pocket. He gestured at Liddick and Radford. “Grab your money, get your gear and let’s go. Time for us to earn our pay.”
While the two men did as they were ordered, Poulin turned back to Dillon. “Who you working for right now, Dillon?”
“Nobody. I was passing through and just happened to get caught up in this misbegotten revolution. Figured that the safest thing to do was to hunker down and wait until hostilities eased off before I made my move.”
“Oh. I figured when you helped us out of that ambush and threw in with us that you were looking for work.”
Dillon shook his head. “Just reckoned that four guns were better than one. And once you told me of your plan to hole up in here I said, ‘why not’?”
“You want to work? Our boss will pay plenty for a man of your experience and talents.”
“Thanks but no thanks. This revolution is none of my business. And in any case I don’t agree with either side. Not much difference between them if you ask me.”
Poulin shrugged. “Who cares as long as the money’s good?”
Dillon patted the thick stacks in front of him. “I’ve got enough right here to help get me out of the country and that’s all I require.”
Poulin stroked his mustache for a bit as he contemplated whether he should kill Dillon or not. It was possible that Dillon was lying and could well be working for the opposition. He’d much rather not have to worry about that. Poulin had never met Dillon before but he knew his rep just as well as Dillon knew Poulin’s. Under the table, Dillon eased his Jericho 941 out of the cross draw holster and carefully, quietly cocked it. He knew exactly what Poulin was thinking and communicated it to the mustached man with his eyes. Eyes that under lowering, severe eyebrows darkened from a sparkling copper to a moody, molten gold. The two men regarded each other for about twenty seconds more.
Poulin left off playing with his mustache and laughed, breaking the tension. “Well, guess I’ll see you around then. Take care and watch your back.” Poulin moved over to a corner of the room and picked up a duffle bag. Liddick had already unbarred the door and the three men, loaded down with their gear left the tavern. Radford was the last one to leave and he couldn’t resist one last remark thrown over his shoulder: “Okay, so you wasn’t cheatin’. But like Miggie said, you coulda tipped us off. I ain’t a guy who forgets shit like that. I see you again I’m gonna settle up.”
Dillon removed the cigar from his mouth and replied; “Let me give you a last word of free advice, Radford: if you sit down at a poker table and you can’t spot the sucker that’s probably because the sucker is you.”
Radford glowered at Dillon with pure hatred before following the other two, slamming the door shut behind him.
Dillon uncocked his weapon, slipped it back into the holster and had another drink while he finished counting his money and smoking his cigar.