Read chapter Three from Up Your Ante

Chapter Three

Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library

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I stared into the face of the husky man I believed was a Mafia bodyguard. His mouth was smiling down at me quite happily, and the scar alongside his jaw was red with suffused blood. I told myself he would never dare attempt any rough stuff with all these people looking on.

“May I help you cash your chips?” he asked. “I’d be delighted.” I figured the only way to handle him was to go along with him, but only just so far; at the first sign of an attack, I was going to level him, but good.

He carried my handbag that was bulging with all the bread I’d taken from the Mafia boy. He walked easily, catlike, that told me his body was in perfect fighting trim.

When we came to the cage and had counted out my winnings, he turned to me with a faint grin and asked, “Will you take a check?”

I nodded, slightly bemused. I was still waiting for that attack to happen.

The girl behind the counter asked brightly. “Will you sign it here or in your office, Mr. Clevering?”

I gawked. This was Ian Clevering, the owner of the Spider Web, this man I’d tabbed mentally as being a Mafia bodyguard. Watch it, Cherry! I warned myself. Your female intuition is beginning to slip!

Clevering laughed at my expression. “You seem surprised. I thought you knew,” he murmured.

I think I flushed. I half-laughed. “You’ll never believe me when I tell you who I thought you were. A Mafia bodyguard, here to protect that bastard Wheeler.”

His eyebrows rose. “And you came along with me, thinking that?”

“I can take care of myself.”

He laughed softly, shaking his head. “This old phiz of mine has betrayed me again.” His hand lifted to touch the scar. “I got this playing soccer in Wales, in my misspent youth. They play a rough game, those coal miners. Ever since, it’s given me a sinister expression. I scare children with it, unfortunately. However

“Come into my office. I want words with you.” His hand at my elbow guided me. I said softly so only he could hear, “Part of that money belongs to the house, you know. I couldn’t help but win it when I was taking Wheeler at the blackjack table.”

“You keep it, my dear. Buy yourself a dress with it. All I want to know from you is how you did what you did.”

His office was on the second level, where an iron-railed balcony ran around the entire casino. From here his lookouts could watch to make sure their dealers weren’t cheating him, to make sure the players were also keeping it honest. A mahogany door opened onto a hushed room with a huge mahogany desk, a very thick carpet, and wood-paneled walls that held a number of sporting prints.

“Floss will bring your check in a few moments,” he told me, gesturing me into a big leather easy-chair, sitting down at his desk in a swivel-chair and leaning elbows on the glass desktop.

“Now tell me. How’d you do it?”

“By covering the backs of the cards so Wheeler couldn’t see them.”

His eyebrows raised. “Covering the backs of the cards?”

I crossed my gams, showing off my nyloned legs. His eyes dipped to them, remained a moment, then rose to my face. I said, “I thought John Haverford had been to see you? That he’d told you what you’re up against with the Mafia?”

“He did. But he didn’t explain how we were being taken, just that we were. I asked for proof, but he couldn’t give me any.”

I remembered that John-baby had only made his discovery about the infra-red markings of the cards very recently. So I bent forward, worked at the contact lenses and popped them out. I slid forward to the edge of the easy-chair and laid them on the desktop. Ian Clevering picked them up, then sent me a questioning glance.

“Take them outside. Break open a sealed pack of cards. Fan them out under the overheads from above a blackjack table. Or under any other table, for that matter.”

He went out, closing the door behind him. I lay my head against the chair backrest until he returned. His face was flushed angrily, and there was an insane glint in his black eyes. He tossed down a deck of cards, and snarled.

“Had! I’ve been taken by those sons of bitches!”

“Almost to the point of selling out?” His look was ominous. His right hand closed into a big fist. “As you Americans say, right on. What a stupid fool!”

“You aren’t the only one. They’ve been working on the Admiral’s Walk and the Kings and Queens, too. You’re all about to go down the drain unless you change your tactics.”

“Change what tactics?”

“Buy from a different card company, for one thing. For another, make sure you use only regular electric lights in your establishment. Without infra-red markings and infra-red light, the Family boys won’t be able to cheat you without being detected. And I’ll bet they won’t dare do that.”

“Easy to say. I have a contract with the card company for five years.” His lips twisted bitterly. “I thought I was being smart, accepting their offer to furnish me with cards at half the price I was paying.” His fist struck the desk. “I was a goddamn idiot. I should have guessed there was something wrong.”

I said consolingly. “I’ll get you out of that contract.”

“Now how can you do that?”

“Your cards are manufactured in Wiltshire, aren’t they?”

“Their factory is there, yes.”

Floss came in at this moment with the check made out for something like thirty thousand pounds, in my name. Ian Clevering glanced at it, lifted a pen and scrawled his signature across its bottom.

Floss flashed me a smile and went out, her backside waving saucily. Clevering leaned forward, handed me the check. I took it, waved it in the air to dry the ink.

“All I want out of this are my expenses,” I told him. “I’ll deposit it, make out a check to you for the difference. You’ve sustained enough losses.”

“You keep it. Most all of it is Mafia money, anyhow. I don’t want it. You didn’t take more than a few hundred pounds from me. Let it be your fee. How do you intend breaking my contract?”

“That’s my secret. I play a lone hand, Ian. I don’t tell anybody how I operate. The less people in on the know, the less I have to worry about a leak. Even an accidental one.”

He nodded grimly. “Fair enough. I won’t ask questions, then.” He brooded a moment, then said, “You’re running in danger, you know. The Mafia will be wise to you, of course. I think that bastard playing with you knew you knew about him and his infra-red lenses.”

“Certainly he knew. I wanted him to, because I want to put a stop to his milking you and the Admiral’s Walk. They won’t be likely to send anyone else around until they find out what I’m up to, who I am and where I learned what I did about their little stunt.”

“No, no. The Family will lay low, as far as you’re concerned, for a while to come. They won’t risk an exposure. That would mean bad publicity and might queer their entire game.”

“What are you going to do now?” I glanced at my wristwatch. “It’s home to bed and a good sleep. Tomorrow I have a long drive ahead of me.”

His lips quirked into a faint Smile. “Don’t suppose you’d tell me where you’re headed?”

I shook my head. “Not that I don’t trust you, it’s better for everybody.”

He squirmed uncomfortably, muttering, “If I thought you were trying to protect me, I’d put a tail on you, honey. I don’t like the idea of a woman protecting me from—anything.”

I smiled and got to my feet, holding out my hand. He took it, held it a moment, saying, “When you come back from wherever it is you’re going—have lunch with me. Or even better—dinner.”

“It’s a date.” I folded my check, tucked it in my handbag. Then my high-heeled Capezios carried me out of his office, down the balcony stairs and toward the front door. It was close to four in the morning, the players and the dealers had all gone home. A couple of charladies were cleaning up.

I went out into a thick fog. It was not the deadly pea-souper that London knows upon occasion, but it was bad enough. Tendrils of grayish mist brushed my face and body as I walked rapidly along Eccleston Street toward Belgrave Square and, hopefully, a taxi stand.

Momentarily I expected Charley Wheeler and a friend or two to pop out of the fog and come at me. The Family never takes a beating lying down. Now that they knew I was wise to their card trick—and probably their plan of action against the gambling palaces—they would want to put a quiet tongue in my head.

My walk was uneventful. I flagged down a taxi near the Finnish Embassy. In a few minutes I was stepping out of it in front of the Grosvenor House. I made my way to the front lobby to get my key. Somewhat to my surprise, John-baby was half asleep in a big chair, in that lobby, one eye partially open against my coming.

“How’d it go?” he asked as he joined me. I told him, and his face grew worried. “If they realize you’ve tumbled to their plan, it’ll be bad for you.”

“But worse for them,” I snapped, and told him what I needed for my job tomorrow. His face exploded with surprise.

“What do you want all those things for?”

“Cherry Delight is going into action. I figure I’ll get about three, maybe four hours’ sleep. Have a car with those things in it for me around eight o’clock, honey. Mamma’s going to needem.”

I took the key from the night clerk and headed for the elevators. John-baby went with me as far as the door, protesting. He argued that I was not to risk my neck, that since I’d convinced Ian Clevering, we could also convince other owners of the gaming places.

My smile was tight-lipped. “I have to give Clevering an excuse to break his contract with the Wiltshire Card Company. Without that excuse, the Family might move in and try its strong-arm tactics On him.”

John Haverford looked worried. “You have a point there,” he admitted. “But this means you’ll be going into danger. Say! Why don’t I come with you?”

I patted his cheek. “You stay here and keep the pot boiling. I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”

The elevator door opened. I got in. Ten minutes later I was sound asleep, after leaving a request with the clerk for a seven o’clock call. It seemed to me that seven o’clock came in about one minute. I fell out of bed, staggered blearily into the shower, and turned the cold faucet. They could have heard my howls at the Tower, but the shower woke me up.

I dressed in slacks, a striped jersey with turtle neck and long sleeves, and carried a big leather shoulder bag. I snatched a cup of coffee on my way through the restaurant that faced Park Lane, then found the MG roadster John-baby was putting at my disposal.

“The things you asked for are in the trunk,” he growled, standing alongside the car as I approached and fussing like a wet hen. “There’re also a few maps and a thermos filled with hot coffee, in case you get thirsty.”

I told him he was a doll, kissed him on the lips, and started off. Salisbury—that cathedral town outside which the Wiltshire Card Company is located—is southwest of London, so I went by way of the Great West Road and Staines Road through Egham and Bagshot.

It was a lovely, sunny day, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and no threat of rain—unusual for England at any time—so I let the wind blow my red hair and fan my cheeks and just enjoyed the drive. It’s a little difficult to become accustomed to driving on the left side of the road, but after a few miles, one gets used to it.

I swept along through the hilly, undulating countryside that lies between Basingstoke and Winchester, enjoying the chalk downs and wooded valleys. Here and there I could make out little farmhouses entirely surrounded by vines and fields of corn. There was plenty of time for what I intended doing. I couldn’t touch the card factory in full daylight, I was going to have to wait for night, anyhow, so I meandered along, occasionally even stopping like a tourist to see the sights.

Toward late afternoon I came into Salisbury by way of Exeter and Saint Catherine’s Street to the Guildhall and the Marketplace. About the middle of the nineteenth century, streams of water ran through these streets in brick-lined canals, but when cholera broke out, those streams were covered over. Originally, it was a Roman town called Sarum, that exists now only as a hill northward of the city proper.

Salisbury boasts a cathedral, and is one of the most attractive cities in all England. I promised myself a tour of it before dinner, after which I was going to get down to N.Y.M.P.H.O. business. I pulled in to the White Hart Hotel and yanked my luggage, such as it was (a small valise that held some pajamas and personal effects, no more) from the car trunk. I checked to make sure the equipment John Haverford had promised to put there was all in place.

I closed and locked the MG trunk lid, marched into the White Hart and got myself a room. It was close to five in the afternoon, by this time. I would have time for a visit to the cathedral and the marketplace, but not much more.

By nightfall, I had to start for the card factory. I freshened up in my room and went for my walk, down Saint John’s Street and the North Walk to the cathedral. The cathedral spire is the tallest one in England and at one time was in danger of falling over; it was saved by certain suggestions made by Sir Christopher Wren. Even so, one of the pillars is bent under its weight.

The interior is dark, due to the type of Purbeck marble with which it is finished. Just to the right of the entrance door is the oldest working clock in England and perhaps in the world, since it dates from 1386. The library, which contains one of the four original copies of the Magna Carta, and a book published in 1612 by Captain John Smith which contains a map of Virginia that he drew, was closed at the moment, but I made do by studying the scissors arches on the Lady chapel, enjoying myself immensely.

My jobs for N.Y.M.P.H.O. take me into all the corners and by-ways of this world of ours, and I try to sop up the flavor of the various countries I go to, by just some such side excursion as this. I regard these moments as little pools of pleasure in the usually wildly exciting life I lead while doing battle with the Mafia.

I went into the cloisters, the largest and reputedly the most beautiful in England, and just stood there enjoying the peace and quiet. It isn’t often I get a chance like this, I didn’t want to muff it. There are two tall cedars from Lebanon in the middle of the lawn, which added to its loveliness.

Then I left the cathedral and walked to the marketplace. On Saturdays, when the farmers come into town in their carts and wagons, this is a lively place. Right now it was fairly deserted. I came back to the White Hart Inn by way of Butcher Row and Catherine Street.

It was dinnertime, so I feasted on roast goose with all the trimmings, and settled for coffee but no dessert afterward. It was nearly eight, now, and dusk was creeping in beyond the dining room windows. It was time to go to work.

The MG made nice time out of Salisbury, along the road to Wilton. Just past Ditchampton and almost beside the Wylye River, I saw my target for tonight. The long, low buildings were dark, but an illuminated sign above the peaked roof told me this was the Wiltshire Card Company. I drove beyond it for a few hundred yards, then opened the MG’s trunk.

Under a couple of burlap bags, I found the bazooka with the napalm shells ready to fire. I loaded the bazooka and under cover of darkness and some trees, sauntered back toward the factory. Not wanting to be seen from the road, I moved around to the back of the place.

I saw a lighted window, and cursed under my breath.

I didn’t mind burning down the card factory—this would give Ian Clevering and the other gambling hall owners a chance to break their contract for playing cards with the Mafia—but I didn’t want to burn anybody alive. So I crept through the woods, slipped over the lawn, and peered in the Window.

Three men were playing cards. Mafia types, all of them. They were the bodyguards, left here to make sure nobody vandalized or otherwise harmed their place of business. I went on cussing softly, all the time I was backing away to the edge of the woods.

My foot bumped against a stone. I bent, picked it up, tossed it up and down in my palm, glancing from the rock to the window. I’m no baseball player, but I figured I could hit that pane of glass with what I held. And a shattering window ought to bring those musclemen out of the factory on the double.

I wound up and heaved. For a second, I thought I was going to miss the damn window entirely. But the rock dropped just in time to hit the upper part of the gritted upper sash. Glass broke with shattering loudiness.

I heard male voices yelling. Then feet pounded and a back door was flung open. By this time I was down on one knee, sighting the bazooka. My finger curled around the trigger and I pulled.

The napalm shell went through a second window and hit, splashing fire all over the interior. I calmly ejected the shell, inserted another. By this time, of course, the Mafia musclemen had sighted me.

They came for me with screams of rage. I let them come closer, all the time zeroing my aim at another window, further down the line. The bazooka burped and more fire exploded into life. I watched those flames for a few seconds.

The musclemen were almost on top of me. They knew where I was, the sound of the bazooka told them that, but I was in the shadows of some bushes and the trees, and when I rose up in their path, swinging that bazooka barrel, I caught them by surprise.

I took one guy across the face with the metal barrel. I heard cartilage crunch as his nose flattened against his face. He howled his agony and bent over. A second man was reaching out for me With both hands.

My hands dropped the bazooka, and I ducked. As his hands missed, my hands caught his arm and a corner of his coat and I whirled, bent double. He rose up in the air and flew toward the closest tree-trunk. He landed against it with a delightful thud.

The third man left his feet in a diving tackle. My legs went out from under me and we went down together, rolling among the bushes. His fist lifted to bash me across the face. We were painting with exertion, I was telling myself that I didn’t dare let myself get captured here, it would blow our N.Y.M.P.H.O. efforts to destroy the Mafia in England sky-high.

The guy who was lifting his fist was a husky bruiser. He was straddled across my middle and his weight was holding me down, squirm as I would His fist came for my face. I jerked my head to one side, the fist grazed my left ear and I saw stars. But I was also seeing how close his face was to my own face, in the follow through of his blow.

My clawing fingers came up, the nails raking. He screeched when my nails went into his forehead flesh and raked down past his eyeballs to his cheeks. I could see the darker line of blood seconds before he threw himself to one side, screaming in agony.

I rolled, made it to my feet, grabbed the bazooka and ran.

Feet pounded behind me, I heard them like thunder getting closer and closer, I made it to the road, ran for my car. Maybe this was a mistake because my pursuer gained on me rapidly along the roadbed.

I turned, lifted the bazooka. He slid to a halt on the gravelly edge of the road and began to below for help. I wanted no publicity; I mean, after all, outwardly the Wiltshire Card Company was a legitimate business. And I was destroying it. This could mean jail for little old me.

So I turned tail, tossed the bazooka in the MG and hopped in after it.

“I’ve got your number, you little whore!” the man bellowed from behind me. He was the One I’d chucked against the tree. I’d hurt him, despite the fact that he could run, and I figured that if he’d been his normal self, or if he’d had a gun, he might have tried to prevent my driving off.

As the gears meshed and I spurted away from the edge of the road, I turned my head and stared behind me. The building was on fire. Red flames rose up into the night sky and framed black against that redness was the hulking figure of the man who had chased me.

His hands were opening and closing, he was probably thinking to himself how much he would have liked to get me beneath those fists of his, but he had to make do with a license number. And this made me realize that the MG belonged to John Haverford.

I didn’t want him to get in trouble. I’d have to make a phone call, back at the White Hart Inn.

When I finally had John-baby on the phone, he laughed at my fears for his safety. “The car’s registered to a fictitious name. They’ll never track it to me. It belongs to N.Y.M.P.H.O., anyhow, I’m safe enough.”

“Then let me keep the car for a little while, John!”

He was instantly suspicious. “Why? It’ll only make them come after you.”

“That’s just what I want to happen.” “You little idiot! They’ll kill you.”

“No, they won’t. I’m too valuable to them alive. They’ll want to question me.”

“Oh, great! And you think they won’t know ways to make you talk?”

“John, remember the first night we met? You said there was a kingpin behind the Mafia here in Britain. How do you think I’m ever going to find him if I don’t offer his boys some bait?”

“I don’t like it,” he groused. Well, I wasn’t exactly gung-ho about it, either, but it had to be done. Here in Salisbury, I’d put the MG in a garage, I didn’t want those musclemen to come at me before they’d had a chance to report back to the big boss. They might lose their heads and kill me. This would be a no—no with the man behind the Mafia, I felt sure.

Figure it out. I’d taken a lot of loot from his gambler at The Spider Web, and I’d hinted that I knew damn well what was taking place. Next thing you know, their card factory gets burned down, also by a girl. I didn’t know for sure whether those three musclemen could have seen I was redheaded, but the boss of bosses in England would reason it out for himself.

I was number one on their wanted list. Alive. To answer questions. Somehow or other, I managed to sleep like a baby, this night. The wires would be burning between those three musclemen and the capo di capo, but nobody would touch me in the White Hart Hotel. The Family would figure I’d ducked out of sight.

I ate a good breakfast of scrambled eggs, a slice of ham, toast and coffee, next morning. Then I paid my tab and sauntered over to the garage. The MG was there, untouched. I’d been a tiny bit fearful that those three might have somehow found it and put a bomb under its hood; these thoughts do run through your head upon occasion, but everything was in perfect order.

The motor purred to life, I drove from the garage and headed north on Catherine Street, bound for Basingstoke and Neybridge. My job was over here in Salisbury, but there was a hell of a lot to do in London town.

Just for kicks, I would have liked to drive past the card factory, to see how much damage those napalm shells I’d lobbed through its windows had done. As soon as I was past the cheese market, however, I saw a thick cloud of black smoke to the west, which could be nothing other than the charring remains of the factory.

My soul at peace, I headed north and eastward. It began to rain when I was going through Woking. By the time I was entering the outskirts of Weybridge, there was a deluge coming down on me. I’d stopped to put up the top of the MG, long before. Through gray sheets of pounding, slapping water, I drove through Kingston and headed for central London.

I made Ian Clevering’s apartment my first port of call. He was busily rifling through balance sheets as I made my entrance, and looked up in a vague surprise.

“Didn’t expect to see you so soon,” he laughed, rising and coming around the corner of his desk, holding out his hand, “Thought you were off on Some sort of business.”

“I was. I did the business.” I explained to him what had happened, relishing the look of admiration on his scarred face that turned into something like awe when I’d finished.

“You’re hell on wheels,” he growled, as a compliment.

“Just wanted to let you know you can break that contract with the Family any time now. Safely, that is. Without that factory, they can’t furnish you with any more marked cards. You can buy honest ones, shelve the rest. I wouldn’t destroy them, we might want them in a law court one of these days, as evidence.”

Will do. Now about that dinner date?”

“Let a girl go home and freshen up. I’ll phone you.”

John-baby was the next person I wanted to see, so I couldn’t afford to linger here with Ian, no matter how nice he was, insisting I have coffee with him while he enjoyed his tea. It hurt me a little to refuse him, but I was hot on the Mafia trail now, like a hound painting along on the scent of a fox, and I didn’t want to break the rapport.

I tootled along upper Belgrave Road toward Knights-bridge. Half an hour later I was ringing John Haverford’s bell. He came to the door of his apartment-office in his shirt-sleeves, his tie slightly askew, his face beaming with a grin.

“Cherry, come in I must say, your fellow workers on the other side of the ocean picked a real goody in you. Here two days and already you’ve got the Mafia out of operation.”

“Hey, go easy. I’ve put a crimp in their plan, but I know the Family too well to believe we’ve done anything more than knock out a gear or two. We have a lot of work before us.”

“And don’t I know it! I’ve been on the phone all morning, setting up a meeting between the owners of the gaming halls in the city. I want to put proofs before them, to get them to open their eyes and close their tables to these Family hoods who are trying to take their places away from them. And I’m succeeding. Pretty well, that is.”

I studied his glum face. “But you’re having trouble.”

“It’s Adam Simkins, damn his eyes! He thinks we’re all on a wild goose chase. Adam owns the posh Cricketeer. If we could get him on our side, we’d be halfway where we want to be.”

“I’ll work on him,” I smiled. “Oh, Freddy Baxter’s going to do that. Freddy thinks we’re doing a simple marvelous job, he’s all for it. He owns the Kings and Queens, another pretty swank establishment that’s been suffering from Mafia inroads, and he’s hot to put them behind bars.”

The telephone rang shrilly, demandingly. Almost like—an alarm bell.

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