With apologies to Jocko.
Deason Soderlund glared across the room. He raised an arm, allowing his wristwatch to block the view. It whispered midnight.
Whispered because there were no clocks in this place, and it didn’t wish to offend.
The steps leading into the space were the easiest of all things to overcome. They welcomed a man, encouraging him to give away the shirt on his back and the deed to his house before rolling out queasily depressed – or having a pair of size 12s give his face a clue that his time was more than up.
This room was the one that Deason Soderlund would saunter through arrogantly. Besuited businessmen pathetically throwing fifties at tables was his idea of showing off. But he wasn’t here to show off.
Deason Soderlund was going where the professionals lived.
He claimed an eventual seat at the end of the rainbow. It was being kept warm for him. The minute scar at the corner of the croupier’s eye screamed out at him from a dozen yards away. He knew exactly the table he’d needed to find.
Warming his hands by gentle friction, Deason Soderlund studied this stranger. She and he had been trained in the same school of knowledge, but never before this night had they met. Her tell was the scar, a faint flicker the masses might think a crow’s foot, but to his trained gaze a chasm. His was a streak of grey to the left of his chin, an affectation on the beard he wore for this roll of the dice. It made him itch. He hated it.
The croupier, faintly ginger, prim, petite, wore her hair in the tightest regulation tail. No collar, tight cuffs, no jewellery of any kind. Deason saw it as a slight on the integrity of the punto banco room that the uniform went unchanged. There was nothing like it to spoil the atmosphere.
Nothing was out of place about her appearance. He knew he was working with a professional.
The game was baccarat, the rules simple. Deason Soderlund was about the break them.
The croupier drew. Deason pinched the corners of what he’d been dealt. Two threes, both red.
He ought to have stood. He didn’t stand.
‘Card,’ he breathed in a measured tone. He lent the ‘r’ the faintest burr, if only to sound inexcusably continental.
She acceded. Jack the Lad came his way, wearing diamonds. The lad’s arrival was for nought, which suited the charade. He could keep playing with a hand like that, a hand that still totalled six.
Thoughts flowed through the mind of Deason Soderlund, thoughts largely unattached to the game at play. TARGET IN ROOM. It was all he had so far. That or IN TARGET ROOM, which was equally valid. The decoding of more cards in accordance with the cipher both he and the croupier knew would clear up any ambiguity.
The Jack’s aunt arrived this time. Queen of Clubs. TWO.
More red arrived as Deason again called, ‘Card’. She’d better deal some more black soon, he thought, if this is to look convincing.
Love-locked hearts. Number value: 2. By the perverse cipher they’d been given to learn, this translated as SIX.
It was also banco. Deason revealed his cards. A poor showing with as many as five in the hand, but a clear total of eight. Game over.
The croupier hesitantly faced her own cards upwards. No picture cards, but she’d managed to cycle back round to a miserly four.
Deason took his winnings and left. TARGET IN ROOM TWO SIX. He affected an apparent twitch, curling his right index finger repeated about a single casino chip. It was an exercise he was in the habit of performing in the minutes before a job. To loosen his trigger finger.
As he left the table, Deason could swear he caught sight of a single gentle tear trickling the length of the croupier’s tell. Was it a glimmer of compassion she immediately felt towards the occupant of Room 26?
If it was, she had a lot of growing up to do.
Panic often expressed itself through salted secretions from her tear duct, particularly when no other outward sign was allowed. Despite the events as they had just unfolded, the croupier was too seasoned to blow her cover, not even for a second.
They hadn’t taught her how to deal with this level of unexpectedness, so she was going to let her superiors wear the heat. Unless she could break away from the table for just long enough…
By the time another dealer could stand in her shoes, the croupier was racing to the elevators. When she arrived, out of breath, her heart sank. Glowing brightly above the nearest door, a dazzling 2. He was already there.
She returned morosely to her table, cursing the name Deason Soderlund. ‘You don’t wait for a win,’ she hissed. ‘You wait for an Ace of Spades.’ Or END OF MESSAGE.
Which she’d been intent on delivering in two cards’ time. Right after the card coded as SEVEN.