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Behind the long, brass-trimmed bar in McFinn’s Gold Nugget Saloon and Gaming Parlor, Quincannon drew two more draughts from the lager spigot, sliced off the heads with the wooden paddle, and slid the glasses down the bar’s polished surface. The Cornish hardrock miner who caught them flipped him a two-bit piece in return.
“Keep the nickel change for yourself, lad.”
Quincannon scowled as he rang up the twenty-cent sale. Lad. Bah! And a whole nickel for himself, finally, after six hours of hard work in a noisy, rowdy atmosphere. He debated leaving it in the register, but his Scot’s blood got the best of that; he pocketed the coin. The lot of a bartender was neither an easy nor a profitable one, a fact he hadn’t fully realized until the past two days. Nor was it a proper undertaking for a man who no longer drank strong waters of any kind.
He cursed himself for a rattlepate. Adopting the guise of a mixologist had been his blasted idea, not Amos McFinn’s. Not that serving beer and hard liquor to Grass Valley’s constant stream of Cornish miners known as Cousin Jacks and other denizens tempted him to resume his formerly bibulous ways, as the perfume of Golden State Brewery’s steam beer had during his undercover work in the Plague of Thieves Affair the previous January. Having successfully resisted that temptation made resisting this one easy enough. No, it was the hard work combined with the penny-pinching ways of the Gold Nugget’s customers, and the insults they hurled at him when he failed to serve them quickly enough, that made this undertaking difficult.
For the moment there were no more demanding drinkers at his station. Most of the miners and sports lining the mahogany were watching the square raised platform in the center of the cavernous room, where the two women faced each other across a green-baize-skirted poker table.
The play between the pair had been going on for nearly three hours now. At first the other gaming tables—poker, faro, roulette, chuck-a-luck, vingt-et-un—had had their usual heavy clutch of players. But the spectacle of the two lady gamblers engaged in a moderately high stakes stud-poker match was too enticing. The number of kibitzers around the platform, watching the flash of cards reflected in the huge overhead mirrors, had doubled when it became apparent that the challenger, the Saint Louis Rose, was a formidable mechanic in her own right. Now the crowd had swelled so large that some of the nearby tables had been shut down for the duration.
The fact that the two women were complete opposites added to the appeal of their match. The house favorite, Blanche Gaunt Diamond, better known as Lady One-Eye, was ten years older, dark haired, dark complexioned; her dress was of black velvet and encased her big-boned body so totally that only her head and her long-fingered hands were revealed. The black velvet patch covering her blind eye gave her a faintly sinister aspect. She sat quiet and played quiet, seldom speaking, but she was nonetheless a fierce competitor who asked no quarter and granted none. The only times her steely one-eyed gaze left the cards was when she glanced at the two well-dressed gents who occupied a ringside table—her handsome gambler husband, John Diamond, who called himself Jack O’Diamonds, and her taciturn brother and financial manager, Jeffrey Gaunt.
The Saint Louis Rose cut a slimmer and far gaudier figure. Too gaudy by half, in Quincannon’s judgment. She wore a fancy sateen dress of bright green, fashioned low across the bosom and high at the knee so that a great deal—a great deal, indeed—of creamy skin was exposed. A red wig done in ringlets, a little too much rouge and powder, false eyelashes the size of a daddy longlegs, and mouth painted the same rose color as the wig completed her image. She laughed often and too loud and was shamelessly flirtatious with the kibitzers. Even Jack O’Diamonds now and then let his gaze stray away from his wife—and from the sultry, flame-haired presence of Lily Dumont, whose faro bank was close by—to rest on the Rose’s swelling bosom.
Quincannon was one of the few in the hall not paying attention to the game. As it had all evening, even while he was serving customers, his gaze roamed the packed room in search of odd or furtive behavior. No weapons were permitted inside the Gold Nugget, but few if any of the patrons would have stood still for enforced searches by McFinn’s bouncers. Quincannon was willing to wager that there were at least a handful of hideout guns in the hall on any given night.
Movement at the edge of his vision turned his head. But it was only Amos McFinn once more slipping around behind the plank. He was a nervous little gent, McFinn, even at the best of times; on this night he hopped and twitched like a man doused with itching powder. Sweat gleamed on his bald dome. The ends of his brushy mustache curled around his downturned mouth in the manner of pincers.
He drew Quincannon to the backbar and asked in a hoarse whisper, “Anything suspicious?” It was the fifth or sixth time he’d come to voice that or a similar question. He had spent most of the evening shuttling back and forth among the half-dozen bouncers spotted around the hall and Quincannon behind the bar.
“Only two small things, Mr. McFinn. Your actions being one of them.”
“Eh? My actions?”
“Stopping by to bend my ear every half hour or so. Someone might wonder why the owner of this establishment is so interested in his new mixologist.”
“No one is paying any attention to us.”
“Not at the moment. At least not overtly.”
“Well, I can’t help worrying he may be here tonight,” McFinn said. “Not that I expect he’ll make an attempt in front of so many witnesses—”
“If an attempt is to be made. That isn’t certain yet.”
“No, but a packed room is an ideal place for one. Especially if the assassin is deranged enough not to fear for his own safety.”
Quincannon said nothing to that, his gaze roaming again.
McFinn sighed. “All right, then, I’ll leave you be.” He started to do this and then stopped and once more leaned close. “Two small things, you said. What’s the other?”
“Have you noticed his interest in Lily Dumont?”
“No. Lily Dumont?”
“They were thick at her table before the poker match began, while Lady One-Eye was in her dressing room.”
“You mean you think they—?”
“More than likely.”
“I don’t believe it. Why, Jack is devoted to Lady One-Eye. I’d stake my reputation on it.”
Then your reputation, Quincannon thought sardonically, is worth no more than a plugged nickel.
One of the reasons he’d chosen the guise of a bartender was that gaming-hall employees were far more likely to pass along private knowledge to a fellow drone than to a detective or even a customer. A bouncer and one of the other barmen had both confided that Lily and Jack O’Diamonds had spent time alone at her cottage on more than one occasion. They had also told him Lily’s swain, a Nevada City saloon owner named Glen Bonnifield, knew about the affair and was in a rage over it. Quincannon had had proof of this; Bonnifield, a tall thin gent in a flowered vest, was in the crowd tonight, and the look in his eye as he watched Lily and Jack O’Diamonds earlier was little short of murderous.
Lily seemed not to care that she was being observed by Bonnifield, or by Lady One-Eye’s gimlet-eyed brother. Several times she had pressed close to Diamond and whispered in his ear, and she did so again now, stepping over from her faro bank. From the look on the gambler’s face, she had passed a comment of an intimate nature. He nodded and smiled at her—a rather lusty smile—and touched the three-carat diamond stickpin in his cravat, his trademark and good-luck charm. His wife didn’t seem to notice; her single eye was on her cards. But Jeffrey Gaunt did, and it was plain from his curdled expression that he didn’t like it. Neither did Bonnifield. His smoldering look kindled and flared; he took a step toward the pair, changed his mind when Lily returned to her table.
McFinn was saying, “Even if there is something between Jack and Lily, what does it have to do with the reasons—either of the reasons—I hired you?” He paused and then blinked. “Unless you think one of them—?”
“I don’t think anything at this point,” Quincannon said.
This was an evasion, but McFinn accepted it and let the matter drop. As he twitched away, a ripple passed through the crowd. Lady One-Eye had won another hand, this time with a spade flush over the Saint Louis Rose’s high two pair. Someone within Quincannon’s hearing said that it was the fifth pot in a row she’d taken. He glanced up at the ceiling mirrors. Early on, the pile of red-and-blue chips had been tall in front of the Rose; in the past hour it had begun to dwindle there, to grow on Lady One-Eye’s side. One or two more large pots and she would have picked the Rose clean.
Lady One-Eye shuffled the cards for another deal, her long fingers manipulating them with practiced skill. According to the story she’d told McFinn, a buggy accident ten years ago had claimed her left eye and damaged her left hip so that she was unable to walk without the aid of her gold-knobbed cane. But she considered herself fortunate because her hands were her livelihood and both had come through the accident unscathed. Her handicaps, in fact, had won her sympathy and support among the sports who frequented gaming halls such as the Gold Nugget. Even hard-bitten professional gamblers, who considered it bad luck to play against a one-eyed man, had been known to sit at a poker table with Lady One-Eye. Only once, though, in most cases, for their luck with a one-eyed woman generally turned out to be just as bad.
Five-card stud was her game, the only game she would permit at her table. And the table here was hers: she rented it from McFinn, paying a premium because alone on the raised platform she was the Gold Nugget’s central attraction. She had occupied the table for four weeks now, ever since she and her brother and her husband had arrived in Grass Valley at the end of May. Their previous whereabouts were unknown, though the fact that all spoke with a noticeable Southern accent tended to support McFinn’s contention that they were originally from New Orleans.
Already word of Lady One-Eye’s prowess and phenomenal luck had spread wide. She never refused a game, even for low stakes; and so far she had not lost a single high-stakes match, once relieving a Sacramento brewer of $1,100 on a single hand of stud. Some said she was a better mechanic than such sporting queens as Poker Alice, Madame Moustache, and Lurline Monte Verde. A few claimed she was the equal of Luke Short, even of Dick Clark.
At least one was afraid she might be a cheat to rival George Devol, the infamous Mississippi River skin-game artist. That lone skeptic was not a victim of her talents, fair or foul. He was the one person, other than the Lady, who had benefitted most from her presence in the Gold Nugget: Amos McFinn.
McFinn ran a clean establishment. He had to in order to remain in business. Grass Valley—and its close neighbor, Nevada City—were no longer the wide-open, hell-roaring mining camps they had once been. Now, less than four years from the new century, they were settled communities with schools, churches, and Civic Betterment Leagues. There was a move afoot to ban gambling in both towns. So far McFinn and the other gaming-parlor operators had managed to forestall the efforts of the bluenoses; but if it came out that a female tinhorn had been working the Gold Nugget with impunity for the past month, especially if she were caught cheating during one of her public performances, it might just give the anti-gambling faction enough ammunition to shut down McFinn’s operation.
This was one reason why he had hired Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services. Lady One-Eye had increased the number of his customers and thereby his profits; he couldn’t afford to send her packing on a fearful hunch, without proof. He had to know for sure before he could act, and as quickly as possible given the other reason he’d sought detective help.
That reason was potentially even more disastrous. Five days before, an anonymous note written in green ink had been slipped under the door of the room Lady One-Eye shared with Jack O’Diamonds in a lodging house behind the Gold Nugget. She had found the note and taken it to McFinn, who in turn had brought it to Sheriff Hezekiah Thorpe. But there was little the law could do. The note might well have been the work of a crackpot, all blather and bunkum. On the other hand, it might be just what it seemed: a thinly veiled death threat.
Quincannon had examined the note in Thorpe’s office shortly after the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad, which linked Grass Valley with Colfax and there joined the Southern Pacific line, had deposited him in this mountain community. It read:
WARNING TO LADY ONE EYE AND J DIAMOND
The good citizens of Grass Valley don’t want your kind. We have got rid of bunko steerers, confidence sharks, sure thing men, thimble riggers and monte throwers and we will get rid of common card shaprs and there men too. Leave town in 48 hours or you will pay the price and pay dear when you least expect it. I mean what I say. I have fixed your kind befor, permenent.
Crude language and spelling, and poor penmanship as well. It might have been written by a near-illiterate with a misguided moral streak; this was McFinn’s assessment. But Quincannon wondered. It could also have been written by someone educated and clever, with a motive for wanting Lady One-Eye, Jack O’Diamonds, or both dead that had little or nothing to do with their professions. At any rate, they had ignored the warning and the forty-eight-hour period had passed without incident. If the note writer carried out his threat, particularly if he were to carry it out inside the Gold Nugget, McFinn would be ruined as effectively as if Lady One-Eye were exposed as a cheat—
“Three pretty little fives! The pot’s mine, dearie!”
The Saint Louis Rose’s loud, coarse voice echoed through the hall. Quincannon frowned and glanced up at the mirror above the poker table. The Rose was dragging in a small pile of red-and-blue chips, Lady One-Eye watching her stoically.
“Two in a row now and more to come,” the Rose said to a knot of bearded Cornish miners on her left. “My luck is changing for fair, gents. It won’t be long before all the red and blue are mine to fondle.”
The miners sent up a small cheer of encouragement punctuated by ribald comments. Most of the onlookers, however, remained Lady One-Eye’s champions. Like them, Quincannon wished the Rose would close her mouth and play her game in silence. Listening to her plume herself was an irritation and a distraction.
The deal was Lady One-Eye’s. Without speaking she picked up the deck. Quincannon again studied her dexterous fingers as they manipulated the cards, set the deck out to be cut, then dealt one card facedown and one faceup to the Rose and herself. If she was a skin-game artist, he reflected, she was in a class by herself.
The professionals she’d cleaned during the course of her career would have caught her out if she had been doing anything as obvious as dealing seconds, dealing off the bottom, switching hole cards, or using a mirror or other reflective surface to reveal the faces of the cards to her as she dealt them. She could not literally have had anything up her sleeve, for the long sleeves on her high-collared dress fit tightly about her wrists. Nor could she have employed table bags or any of the other fancy contraptions manufactured by the likes of Will & Fink, the notorious San Francisco firm that specialized in supplying gimmicks to crooked gamblers. Because of the raised platform, and the fact that a woman played upon it, the table wore a floor-length green skirt; but the skirt was kept drawn up until Lady One-Eye took her chair and play began, thus allowing potential players to examine both it and the table if they chose to.
The Rose’s up card was the jack of clubs, the Lady’s the four of hearts. Both women peeked at their hole cards. The Rose then winked at her admirers, bet twenty dollars. Lady One-Eye called and dealt a ten of diamonds to go with the jack, a deuce of spades for herself. This time the Rose bet fifty dollars. Again, silently, Lady One-Eye called.
The fourth round of cards brought the Rose a spade jack, the Lady a five of diamonds. The challenger grinned at her high pair and said, “Jacks have never let me down,” a remark that caused Lady One-Eye to cast a quick glance at her husband. “One hundred dollars on the pair of ’em, dearie.”
Quincannon wondered if the remark about jacks had been deliberate—if the Rose, too, had noticed the intimacy between Jack O’Diamonds and Lily Dumont. Likely she had. Lady One-Eye was as aware of it as her brother, he was fairly certain of that.
Without another glance at her hole card, the Lady called the hundred-dollar bet. Slowly she dealt the fifth and final cards. Jack of hearts. And the trey of clubs. Three of a kind for the Rose, a possible open-ended straight for herself.
The onlookers began to stir and murmur. Play at the few other open gambling tables suspended for the moment. Nearly everyone in the cavernous room stood or sat watching the two women. Even McFinn, leaning against one of the roulette layouts, was temporarily motionless.
“Well, dearie,” the Rose said, “three handsome jacks.” She tapped her hole card. “Is this the fourth I have here? It may well be. What do you think, Lady, of my having the jack of diamonds?”
Quincannon was sure that this innuendo was intentional. But whatever Lady One-Eye thought of the remark, she neither reacted nor responded.
“Or it may be another ten. A full house beats a straight all to hell, dearie. If you even have a six or an ace to fill.”
“Bet your jacks,” Lady One-Eye said in her soft, cold drawl.
The Rose separated four blue chips from her small remaining stack, slid them into the pot. “Two hundred says it makes no difference if you have a straight or not.”
“Your two hundred, and raise another two.”
Voices created an excited buzz, ebbed again to silence. Neither of the women seemed to notice. Their gazes were fixed on each other.
“A bluff, dearie?” the Rose said.
“Call or raise and you’ll soon know.”
“Four hundred is all I have left.”
“Call or raise.”
“Your two hundred, then, and my last two hundred.”
The pile of red-and-blue chips bulged between them. The crowd was expectantly still as the Rose shrugged and turned over her hole card.
The queen of hearts. No help.
“Three jacks,” she said. “Beat ’em if you can.”
Her one good eye as icy as any Quincannon had ever seen, the Lady flipped her hole card. And when it was revealed in the glistening mirrors, a triumphant shout went up from her champions.
Ace of clubs to fill the straight.
The pot and all of the Rose’s table stakes were hers.
Copyright © 2018 by Pronzini-Muller Family Trust