Cold Cards, a short story by Gene Kerrigan

This story is from Trouble Is Our Business: New Stories by Irish Crime Writers. Kerrigan is a leading journalist and won the UK Crime Writers Association award in 2012

This story is taken from Trouble Is Our Business: New Stories by Irish Crime Writers (New Island) edited by Declan Burke. Gene Kerrigan is a veteran Dublin journalist who writes on politics. He has had nine non-fiction books published, and four novels. In 2012, The Rage won the UK Crime Writers Association award for crime novel of the year

This story is taken from Trouble Is Our Business: New Stories by Irish Crime Writers (New Island) edited by Declan Burke. Gene Kerrigan is a veteran Dublin journalist who writes on politics. He has had nine non-fiction books published, and four novels. In 2012, The Rage won the UK Crime Writers Association award for crime novel of the year

 

There’s a chill coming off the cards, even as they fly low across the green, Tony Finnegan dealing clockwise around the table. Before you touch them you know that when you pick the cards up and hold them close, your fingers separating them so their values appear one by one, they’ll break your heart.

And when the cards are like that, there’s nothing you can do about it. Just play the odds, fold or bet small, tap out as soon as it’s decent.

It’s superstition, the cold card thing, and Richie Crown knew that. It’s like believing in fairies. It’s like swallowing all that water-into-wine shit. Weak-minded notions, for people who need a crutch.

But, still.

Superstition or not, he knew in his bones it was real - sometimes, the cards are stone cold for you.

The occasional bad evening, that’s not a problem. That’s winning and losing, you take what’s coming. But when you return week after week and the bad run carries on like it’s the way things were always meant to be, that’s the worst kind of suck. Like some higher force is playing with your life.

Statistically, there’s no reason why a tasty hand can’t pop up in the middle of a bad run. But when that happens, Richie Crown knew, almost always it’s a teaser, keeping you on the hook. You think this is where the cards are warming up, the elation makes you careless, a couple of hands further on that hollow feeling is back, eating away at your gut.

What kept him going was the knowledge that nothing is forever. The longest lucky streak comes to an end, and the dreariest cold streak, too. Then things get back to normal. Good hands, bad hands, hands that mightn’t work out but they’re worth a shot. Times the cards get so hot you feel you own the night. Richie remembered times like that, and he knew there would be more, as long as he stayed in the game.

Watching the cards fly from Tony’s hands, Richie sipped at his C.C. and said a silent prayer to the God he didn’t believe in.

Four Tuesdays on the trot, including this one - each evening, the cold cards offering nothing but more pain. It made the occasional bluff irresistible. Never works. Knowing Richie was playing against a bad run, the other players could smell the sham. And there’s no pity at the table.

Richie Crown picked up his cards, cupped them in both hands, level with his chin, his right thumb teasing them apart. First card’s the three of diamonds, second the jack of clubs, third’s the seven of hearts, and this is shit, this really is a hand of blanks. Inside, he was imploring God to make another jack of the fourth card, make a game of it, maybe even give him something useful in the fifth card, making two pairs or even trips. Playing a hand like that on top of his bad streak, the others would read it as a bluff, so they’d play along and he’d reel in a decent piece of change.

His thumb eased open the cards a little more and revealed the eight of spades. God was offline again tonight. The fifth card was the two of clubs.

Every deal restored the hope, even this far into the bad streak, when the chill was bone deep. And every new hand was a kick in the gut from a stone cold boot.

Directly across from Richie, Joe Campbell was a grinder, working the odds, taking a small win and making a small loss, ramping things up maybe once a night and occasionally hauling in a rake of chips. To Richie’s left, Tommy O’Rourke was a happy amateur. He didn’t raise a lot, often folded, called occasionally and mostly lost small. It was like his losses were the price of admission to a weekly game. Any night he went home with ten cents more than he started with was a cause for celebration. Tony Finnegan, too, played for the enjoyment. The other two, Joshua Barrett and Paudie Griffin, were the serious players, along with Richie Crown.

The game was eight months on the go, give or take, always at Joshua’s house off Griffith Avenue, always on Tuesday nights. All of them lived within a stroll of Joshua’s place, except Richie Crown and Tony Finnegan. Compared with the kind of money that crossed the tables at some of the games in Dublin, this was just a neighbourly get-together. But it was a bad poker year for Richie Crown, even before these past few weeks.

He folded, as Tommy pushed a couple of chips into the centre of the table.

It was a little after midnight when Richie tapped out.

‘We gonna be much longer?’ Tony Finnegan asked.

Joshua grunted. ‘You got a woman simmering somewhere?’

‘Sometimes I give Richie a lift - he’s on my way.’

Tony was the one man at the table who didn’t drink during a game.

‘You’re OK, I’m fine,’ Richie said, ‘taxis pass the end of the road.’

‘Too cold for hanging around street corners.’

‘Four-five hands more?’ Joshua asked. Tommy, Joshua and Paudie indicated that was about right. Tony looked up at Richie. ‘What’s the hurry?’

He was looking Richie in the eye and Richie nodded and poured himself another C.C. and sat some feet away, sipping, head back, eyes focused on nothing in particular, the murmurs of the poker players just a background buzz.

Behind the wheel of his car, Tony Finnegan said, ‘You’re down - what? Three grand, four?’

‘I’m OK,’ Richie said, though it was a lot more than four grand. Way back, when the poker got serious, Richie worked out the most he could lose without seriously fucking his life was six. He was always well inside that limit until - three-four months back - he got himself into a game in Rathmines. It was a high-stakes effort, with a couple of young business types, a solicitor and a TCD academic. Richie felt like it was time to step up, to test himself. He coasted for a few games, then took a hammering one evening on three major hands over a period of forty minutes. He got out of that scene a couple of weeks later, by which time he was down almost twelve grand. On top of previous losses, he was looking into a seventeen grand hole.

He’d been slowly repairing his finances since then, until the cards turned ice cold for him and stayed that way.

‘You’re hurting, right though?’

‘I’ve been better.’

They were coming up to the roundabout at Ashfield Castle Shopping Centre and Tony Finnegan swung round, turned left into the McDonald’s drive-thru lane and just before the squawk box he took a right and parked where the car couldn’t be seen from the road.

‘Someone’s looking to hire. A once-off,’ he said. ‘You free?’

‘Depends.’

‘It pays well.’

In Tony Finnegan’s day job he managed a shop that rented out tools and machinery - sanders, diggers, generators, shit like that. Then there was the other work.

When he was younger Tony was a sidekick of Georgie Reid. That ended when Reid threw one of his famous wobblers and Tony woke up in an ambulance on the way to the Mater. He cut his ties to Reid and wasn’t around when some other associates of the headbanger had him put down.

Since then, being a trusted kind of person, Tony had offers from several of the major operators in Dublin. He did enough to make a good living and maintain the goodwill due an experienced neutral.

‘Anyone I know?’

‘Roly Blount. Works for Frank Tucker.’

‘Never met Tucker. What I hear, I don’t believe I’d ever want to.’

‘Tomorrow afternoon. That’s why Roly asked me. Fella supposed to do the job suddenly can’t make it, family shit. Roly needs someone in a hurry.’

‘You’re doing it?’

‘I like working with Roly, but I’m down for an angiogram at the Mater.’

‘You got chest trouble?’

‘Fella I got, puts me through the wringer twice a year. Either he’s being as careful as he ought to be or he’s running up the meter. Either way, the missus says fuck it, you’re taking no chances. So, I mentioned your name to Roly. He said to ask you.’

‘What’s the job?’

‘Just driving.’

‘Who? Where?’

‘I know nothing - except he needs someone reliable in a hurry. Bonus for short notice.’ Tony paused a beat, then he said, ‘What Roly says - kind of job it is, it needs a steady hand, someone won’t get spooked.’

‘Ah, shit.’

‘Yeah. It won’t be shoplifting.’

‘He say a number?’

‘He said it’s top rate.’

‘Fuck. Serious shit, right?’

‘Yeah.’

They sat a minute in silence, then Tony said, ‘I gave him three-four names, people I rate - yours was top of the list. Roly recognised the name, said you’re a good guy.’

‘He said I’m a good guy?’

‘Solid, is what he said.’

They both knew that meant if something went wrong Richie could be relied on to know that his best interests lay with keeping his mouth shut.

A thing like this, it could take a big enough bite out of Richie’s debts to take him back to the bright side. Beyond that, do a good job for someone like Roly, someone like his boss Frank Tucker, they know you’re dependable, maybe it turns regular. That kind of work, a man could soon pay off a mortgage.

What went against it - when someone like Roly and Frank hire at top rates it’s a serious job and the risk and the possible comebacks will be on the same scale.

‘Solid?’

‘Yeah.’

‘What you think?’

‘You know the up and the down.’

‘Yeah.’

‘He’s a tidy worker, Roly. No loose ends. I wasn’t down for this cardiac shit, I’d jump at it. Other hand, the bigger the job - you know, like they say - the value of your investment can go down as well as up.’

After a while Richie said, ‘OK, thing like this, no telling where it might lead, right?’

Tony took out his phone and sent a text message. Half a minute later he got a reply. It said, IOU.

Richie Crown said, ‘Ask them where’ve I got to be, and what time.’

Coming from the McDonalds, three young men were making a big deal out of strolling home. Their high-pitched voices suggested they’d spent the evening on the jar. Each carried a bag of cholesterol and nothing any of them was saying could possibly be funny enough to justify the loudness of their laughter.

Tony Finnegan tapped out a number. He got out of the car, walked a few yards and stopped, the phone to his ear. The three young men glanced at him as they passed. One of them said something and the other two got loud and high-pitched again.

When he got back into the car Tony was taking the sim out of the phone.

‘Be at home, tomorrow afternoon. Three o’clock, you get a text, telling you the make and number of a car, where it’s parked, not far from your apartment. Doors unlocked, key on the floor under the driver’s seat. Fifteen minutes later, you’re turning into Danieli Road, fella will flag you down. He’s not there, you turn left at the end of Danieli, up to the roundabout, back down to Danieli and try again. Keep doing that until the guy’s there. You take him where he wants to go, then take him wherever else he wants to be taken. OK?’

Richie Crown nodded. ‘I don’t do anything, just drive?’

‘That’s all.’

‘What do I do with the car?’

‘That’ll be taken care of.’

Richie knew he wasn’t going to get an answer, but there was no way he couldn’t ask. ‘What’s he gonna do?’

‘None of our business, yours or mine. Few days later, you get an envelope in your letterbox.’

Twenty yards in front of the car, one of the three kids from McDonalds, without breaking pace, kicked out, his foot connecting with the side mirror of a parked Honda Civic. As the three walked on, the raucous conversation uninterrupted, the mirror hung limply down the side of the passenger door.

‘Thanks for putting my name out there,’ Richie Crown said.

‘Do you a favour, do Roly a favour, it can’t hurt.’

‘All the same, thanks.’

‘Take it easy, tomorrow. Nothing to worry about, just play it cool and everyone comes out ahead.’

Richie nodded. ‘Taxi work.’

‘Yeah.’

Ten minutes later, Tony dropped Richie on the corner of Ardlea Road.

‘Good luck,’ Tony said.

‘Hope the heart thing works out,’ Richie said.

It was there when he woke. A day like any other, but it was as if he was seeing it through a filter that changed everything. Getting up, stepping into the shower, waiting in the kitchen for the kettle to boil, the humdrum stuff tick-tocking by, same as always but different.

First time that happened was one evening about ten years back, he was early twenties, on a rooftop in Camden Street, two heavies coming after him. They were security thugs, came into an office just as Richie was taking a cashbox out of the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet. When they told him, hey scumbag, don’t even fucking think of resisting, he put up his hands and said please, look, no problem, don’t hit me, please. They relaxed. On the stairs he took one of them by the back of the head, slammed his face against a wall and reared back as the other one reached for his arm, turned, was halfway up a flight of stairs before they sorted themselves out.

When he got to the roof there was no obvious route to safety and after half a minute the thugs appeared, one of them his nose bloody. They’d now taken out extendable batons and they were brandishing them like they were soldiering for Darth Vader, waving their fucking lightsabres.

By the time Richie made it to the side of the roof he knew the choice was jumping or taking a serious beating, followed by a stretch in the Joy.

The gap to the next roof was maybe six foot. A safe enough jump across a narrow laneway, if it wasn’t for the sixty-foot drop.

That was the instant in which he first felt the filter drop and everything getting sharper, more intense, knowing that he was into something that would decide how the rest of his life went - or if there was a rest of his life. What he had to do was well within his limits, but if something went wrong the consequences could be drastic.

It was fear, but it was more than that - it was a thrill, an anticipation, a relief at a decision made, the turning of a high stakes card, a higher stage of life.

He took a short run and made the jump, then he turned and stood there on the other side, smiling at the stormtroopers. They could easily make the jump same as him, but the stakes weren’t the same for them.

So, they waved their lightsabres some more and one of them shouted he’d remember Richie’s face.

He’d had that buzz in the run up to every serious job since, that sharper thing that kicked in when the pressure was on. Like before long he was going to step out onto a high, tight wire. It was with him this morning, that buzz, even as he opened the door and Greta appeared with the twins.

His sister worked mornings at a hairdressers in Ashfield. This time of morning, she’d normally be leaving the kids into St Finbar’s.

Fucking school. Part of the ceiling collapsed in the prefab classroom, dumped a shitload of rain on the desks - lucky it didn’t happen when the kids were there. It would take a few days to fix it and Greta couldn’t take that time off at short notice. Richie had no problem looking after Conor and Liam

until Greta got off at lunchtime. They were lively little buggers, they made him laugh.

Now, they were running into the apartment, heading for the DVD shelf. Conor got there first and was flicking through the movies, delivering his judgements - cool, shit, shit, cool, mad . . .

As he kissed Greta goodbye, part of Richie was detached behind that filter, wondering what she’d do with the boys tomorrow morning if he wasn’t around to take them.

While the boys watched a DVD, Richie sat at the kitchen table and used his laptop to do a couple of invoices, then a few emails to potential customers pricing house-painting jobs. He’d already moved a scheduled job back to next week, to take care of the boys. Five of his guys were on three separate paint jobs and there were four more jobs pending and one that Richie knew would be cancelled - a time-wasting cheapskate who’d end up painting his own living room and living with the shitty consequences.

Work had been scarce for the first couple of years of the recession, when people were focused on paying off debts. Then, it eased - less movement in the housing market meant more people were staying where they were and spending money on improvements to their properties. If Richie hadn’t had a poker habit draining his income he’d be well set up by now.

He found himself wondering what would happen to the business if things went bad this afternoon, if any of the lads working for him would have the brains to keep the little outfit going. He decided at least three of them would be well able for it.

One way or another, by teatime it would be over. He’d have earned an exceptional piece of money, or he’d be waiting for his solicitor to arrive at a cop shop. Or worse.

‘Anyone for biscuits?’

Both their hands went up as Conor and Liam turned their backs on the old Stallone movie they’d seen half a dozen times.

Driving a dark brown Hyundai Accent, Richie Crown turned from the Malahide Road into Danieli Road and immediately spotted a man walking slowly towards him on the right-hand pavement. The man was wearing a flat cap, heavy-framed glasses, a bulky dark blue anorak and black cargo pants. Small guy, bulky upper body, like he took care of himself.

Whoever chose the car went for anonymity over performance. It wouldn’t outrun anyone chasing it, but it would blend into the background of just about any neighbourhood.

By the time Richie was halfway down Danieli Road the man in the cap was crossing to the passenger side of the street. He made a gesture, halfway between a wave and a thumbs up, then he stood on the pavement and waited.

‘We’re taking the M50,’ he said, when he settled into the back of the car.

His voice was light, calm. Northern accent. Like Richie, he was wearing thin latex gloves.

‘Southbound on the M50,’ he said.

Richie said ‘Fine,’ and they didn’t speak again until the man gave directions just before they came off the M50 at the Lucan exit.

‘Take Monument Road through Cullybawn, and left when you get to the end of that.’

‘Far from here?’ Richie said. ‘Where we’re heading?’

The man didn’t reply. He gave directions when needed and about ten minutes after they came out of Cullybawn the man said, ‘Pull in up here, just past the lamppost.’

He got out of the car without saying another word. Hands in his anorak pockets, he strolled up the street. After about fifty yards he came to a corner house, a Strain-type two-storey redbrick semi. He opened the gate and halfway up the path he took a key out of his pocket and used it to open the front door.

Could be this was where whatever was to happen would happen, but maybe not. Could be where the man was collecting something to bring somewhere else. Could even be this was where he lived. Richie Crown reckoned there was no point trying to figure it out, he’d know soon enough.

After ten minutes, he wondered if he’d missed something. Was he supposed to sit here? Waiting? What if the guy was gone an hour, two hours?

Is this it, or do I take him somewhere else when he comes back?

Fucking shithead has to be Mr Mystery. Can’t just say come back in an hour. Can’t just fucking say wait for me, I’ll be here ten minutes, half an hour, whatever.

Has to make a big fucking deal of it.

Christ.

It was nerves, that’s all it was, Richie Crown knew.

Shortly before he left his apartment, an hour after Greta came back from work, after Richie said goodbye to the kids, it was like something that had been simmering somewhere underneath came to the boil and Richie realised he was leaning on the kitchen counter, the knuckles of his left fist pushing hard against his mouth. He stared at the chrome handle of a cabinet door like he might see something written there that explained it all.

Solid.

Roly Blount said Richie was solid.

Richie wasn’t sure that made sense.

Don’t be stupid. Thinking yourself into a fix.

His ex, Rosita, said that about him all the time - he couldn’t take things for what they were, had to imagine the worst, picture how that would be, how he’d deal with it.

Still.

What if.

This year, for instance, the kind of thing Richie did - there was a jewellery thing that mostly involved standing next to a couple of staff members who shivered as Richie stared them down from inside a balaclava. Then he helped to recover a large debt from a celebrity chef who lost a fortune fitting out a restaurant that closed before it opened.

Other stuff, same kind of thing. On top of his income from the painting business, it leveraged him into the fairly comfortable bracket. But it wasn’t the kind of work that Roly Blount could be expected to notice.

Other hand, Roly Blount knew a lot of people. He heard all kinds of things.

What if, though.

What if they needed a disposable driver? What if they got somebody in for some heavy work, this guy, they brought him down from the North. Let’s say he’s someone who takes no chances.

Like Roly Blount.

He’s a tidy worker, Roly. No loose ends.

They bring in this Northern guy.

They tell Tony Finnegan he’s sitting this one out, he should find someone who can do the driving, someone solid, but no one they’ll miss if the guy from the North decides it’s safest to toss him away when the job’s done.

Jesus, no, that’s freaky thinking.

You cool out everyone who might be a problem, you create more ifs and buts than you started with. And the odds on something going tits up go through the roof.

No one takes that step unless they have to.

No, it is what it is.

And this is a taxi job.

Waiting’s part of-

The Northern guy came out of the house, down the path to the front gate. He took his time, walking towards the car at the same gentle pace he’d approached the house.

Yeah.

It is what it is.

Nerves, that’s all.

Thinking yourself into a fix.

There’s no what if. No nothing. It is what it is.

Richie started the engine.

Soon as he closed the car door, the Northern guy said, ‘Second right, third left - then halfway down, I’ll give you the word.’

Richie moved them off and the man in the back said, ‘Take it easy, no rush.’

Second right took them onto a long, straight road, third left was a cul-de-sac.

‘Here.’

Getting out of the car, moving fast, the Northern guy said, ‘Leave the doors open.’

As he spoke, two men were emerging from a parked Renault on the other side of the street, one of them carrying a satchel.

Richie followed the Northern guy away from the car.

The men from the Renault were leaning into the Hyundai as Richie followed the Northern guy into a zig-zag laneway that led out of the cul-de-sac and into the next street up.

The Northern guy got into the back of a red Toyota. Richie took the wheel. There was a key in the ignition.

When Richie Crown was on his way back from the gents in the Blue Parrot his phone rang and Greta told him she wouldn’t need him to look after the boys tomorrow, she got a text from the school and the ceiling had been fixed. She invited Richie and his girlfriend over for something to eat next week.

Richie sat back at his place at the counter. He said, well, maybe in a couple weeks - it isn’t really at that stage with Carol, yet, which wasn’t really true.

He swallowed the last of his drink and said, listen, I’ll call you tomorrow. Richie was looking up at the television at the end of the bar. The nine o’clock news was on and a security correspondent was standing in front of the house the Northern guy went to that afternoon.

Richie gave Novak a nod and gestured toward the screen and Novak found the remote and brought up the sound.

‘… Gardaí say the shooting most likely occurred some hours ago. The body was discovered in the late afternoon when a relative - believed to be the man’s nephew - paid a visit to the house. Gardaí believe the victim must have known his killer, as there was no evidence of a break-in. They say the car believed to have been used by the killer was found burnt-out some distance away. The victim, who recently moved to this house from the nearby housing estate of Cullybawn, has been identified locally as Frank Tucker, leader of a well-known West Dublin crime gang. Mr Tucker’s brother was killed in a fight some years ago. Since then, the Tucker gang has expanded out of West Dublin and has for some time had a strong foothold on the Northside. Gardaí fear that this may lead to a tit-for-tat feud, if the Tucker gang carry out reprisals against whoever is responsible for this latest gangland murder.’

Novak was standing across the counter from Richie Crown. ‘These guys, they play the game, they pay the consequences.’

‘Tough game,’ Richie said.

‘You going to start licking the bottom of that glass?’

Richie smiled. ‘Do me again.’

‘My wife Jane, she says this place could do with a lick of paint. What she calls it is dowdy. “Your pub is dowdy as fuck,” she tells me. What you think?’

‘I like it as it is, but that’s a civilian opinion. As a professional, you need to spruce it up a little.’

‘A lick of paint, then. A small lick. A reasonably priced lick, that’s what I think.’

‘Let me work it out, drop in tomorrow, give you a price?’

‘I’m here all day.’

Novak got him another Canadian Club.

What it felt like now was when he made the jump, on that rooftop on Camden Street, and he was standing on the other side of the laneway, looking back at the security thugs. Job done, risk taken and bested, everything back to normal, but he’d made another kind of jump, way past where he’d been.

Friday morning, he came out of the shower, filled the kettle and noticed a large envelope on the floor just inside the front door of the apartment.

The banknotes inside were in shallow layers and totalled enough to put Richie within striking distance of solvency.

Saturday was Carol’s birthday. Richie had already made the bookings for a weekend in London, and they were in a mini-cab travelling in from Heathrow before ten o’clock Saturday morning. Carol was a theatre fan, so that night they went to see a play about a hangman who owned a pub. Richie had never been to a play and he found it a bit shouty at first, then he realised it was a long time since he’d laughed so much. Sunday they spent on tourist shit and they were back in Dublin by lunchtime on Monday.

Tuesday evening, Joe Campbell sent word he’d be a little late for the poker game, so the others poured drinks and waited.

Richie Crown took Tony Finnegan aside.

‘The what-you-call-it, the heart thing, how’d that go?’

Tony shook his head. After a moment of silence, he said, ‘Lying there, tube in one arm, tube coming out the other arm, fuck knows what’s going through me, and they tell me the arteries in my heart - it’s like someone’s been pumping them full of shit. Anyway, month or so from now, they’re opening me up.’

‘Shit.’

‘You?’

‘Same as always.’

‘What I hear, that thing went well?’

Richie shrugged. ‘It went.’

Tony nodded. ‘Roly’s pleased with how it all worked out.’

‘You’ve seen him?’

‘He’ll be in touch.’

Richie wasn’t sure what to say and just then Joe Campbell arrived with a complaint about his fucking father and his fucking stepmother and how they needed a full-time fucking referee, sorry about holding things up.

Tony Finnegan began dealing. Richie Crown reached out to pick up his cards.

This story is taken from Trouble Is Our Business: New Stories by Irish Crime Writers (New Island) edited by Declan Burke. John Curran reviews it in The Irish Times next week. Gene Kerrigan is a veteran Dublin journalist who writes on politics. He has had nine non-fiction books published, and four novels. In 2012, The Rage won the UK Crime Writers Association award for crime novel of the year

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