Raph al Guul
I first met him in a game of Hold’Em down in Alabama and it was the only time we actually met. He was a man of mystery; no one knew who he was as he just appeared out of nowhere, sat down at the table and played a single hand. Before that there were only four players who had bought into the game, including myself. It was Silas’ turn to deal; he was the only resident player in the game that night. Skinny J and Al Carver were two “traders” on their way up north. Everyone suspected that their job description was a euphemism for something more sinister. It certainly didn’t help that their names sounded as genuine as a fifth ace in the deck.
I was playing a few decent hands that night, nothing spectacular – and I certainly wasn’t lucky. A pair of Jacks here, a dead man’s hand there, just enough to keep myself in the game. Silas and Al were more fortunate, while Skinny was almost broke already. His frustration bordered on the comical as he enviously eyed his comrade’s winnings, all the while complaining and accusing him of cheating.
“Ye ain’t foolin’ me,” Skinny said, “I knows ye’re cheatin’. I saw them aces ye stuffed down yer sleeves!”
Al laughed and rolled up the dirty sleeves of his shirt: “Shut it, will ye? I gots no damn cards up my sleeves.”
Silas shook his grey head and took a puff from his cigar: “Are y’all here for playin’ or fightin’? Ain’t no brawlin’ in this here saloon.”
The two looked at the old man as if they were not sure whether to take him seriously or ignore him. Al nodded, nudging his buddy a little more violently than necessary: “Aight, we’re all here for playin’,” he handed the deck to Silas, “ye’re dealin’.”
In that moment, a tall man stepped up to the table from god knows where. He was wearing a flat hat with an old and torn Jack of Diamonds tucked into the leather band. In the dim light it was difficult to make out what was underneath that hat. A thin black beard covered his sharp chin and his long black hair ran down his shoulders. I couldn’t see his eyes, but I felt their piercing impact. His coat looked old and worn out, but it had dim gold linings at the edges that indicated that this coat had once been worth a considerable sum. In a deep, commanding voice he said: “Deal me in.”
Silas first just stared at the stranger, giving Skinny the opportunity to blurt out sheepishly: “Game’s goin’; ain’t no buy-ins.”
The man slightly turned his head, tilted it to the side and, I assumed, raised an eyebrow. The effect was immediate: “I mean… Silas is dealin’,” Skinny pointed at the deck in Silas’ hand, “ye wanna ask him.”
All eyes, probably including those of the stranger, were now on Silas. He gestured at a spot between him and me. “Get yerself a chair.”
The stranger turned to an empty table and grabbed one of the wooden chairs there, swung it around elegantly, placed it next to mine in one move, and sat down without taking off his coat. From a pocket in his vest, he produced some gold coins, placed them in front of him on the table, and slid one of them into the middle.
Al’s eyes widened: “That’s some mighty fine coin ye got there!” he exclaimed.
The stranger said nothing. Al and Skinny exchanged a short glance, I placed my blind, and Silas started shuffling the cards.
My hand wasn’t particularly good, as usually. Just a ten and a five, “nickels and dimes”. The others called the blind and Silas revealed the first three cards. Three of Clubs, Queen of Hearts, Ace of Clubs. With a grin, Al raised the stakes to match all that Skinny had left. Meanwhile, I palmed the Ace of Hearts that I had hidden in my jacket pocket, and placed my hand inconspicuously on top of my two cards lying face down on the table.
“Ye rotten bastard! Ye ain’t got nothin’,” Skinny barked at Al and cackled, “all in.”
He shoved the few coins that he had left onto the stack. I matched their bet with my empty hand, while swiftly exchanging the Five of Clubs for the ace with the other. The stranger next to me nodded and threw in another gold coin. Silas called, too, and revealed the King of Spades, as I dropped the Five of Clubs in my pocket. Al was scratching his head.
I said: “I’m goin’ all in – I got some business that needs attendin’.”
The stranger turned his head and looked at me. For a brief moment I could see his eyes clearly. They were oddly bright, despite the fact that it was difficult to find them. “Gotta hit the trail, huh,” he asked, patting me on the shoulder. Then he looked around the table, sliding the rest of his coins onto the stack: “Let’s raise the stakes.”
Silas looked at the stranger without a single movement in his expression: “Purdy courageous for yer first hand,” he said and went all in, as well.
The stranger tugged at his hat: “All or nothin’.”
Al was staring at the heap of gold that was lying in the middle of the table. “Yeah,” he said, “I’ll call yer bluff.”
Silas turned the final card: Two of Clubs. I coughed and lifted the Ace of Spades from my sleeve, palming it.
Before anyone could reveal his hand, Skinny threw his cards, two threes, onto the table, yelling: “It’s awl mine, chumps!”
Quickly, I replaced the ten with another ace, turning the two aces over in the process and letting the ten slide into my other sleeve: “I ain’t so sure ‘bout that, Skinny.”
A little too quickly, Skinny turned his head towards Al in anticipation of his reveal.
Al grinned and threw down the Jack of Diamonds and the Ten of Spades: “Straight!”
Silas grunted and put his cards face down onto the remaining deck, while Al extended his arm to collect his winnings. With a swift movement of his thumb the stranger flipped over his cards.
“Lady Luck is smilin’,” he said, and I felt my heart beat up to my throat as he revealed the Four of Clubs and, curiously, the Five of Clubs. Immediately – and probably too obviously – my hand ran down to my jacket pocket where I had previously stashed the Five of Clubs I had been dealt. It was gone.
Al and Skinny jumped up both at the same time, Al yelling angrily: “Ain’t no way ye gots a fuckin’ straight flush on yer first hand!”
The stranger grinned and grabbed the card stuck to his hat: “Just the luck of the draw,” he said, flipping the Jack of Diamonds between his fingers.
Skinny raised his fist: “Listen, ye dirty cheat!”
In an incredibly quick motion, the man flung the Jack of Diamonds at the two. But by the time it hit Skinny’s forehead, there were at least 10 cards swirling around the two ruffians, all Jacks of Diamonds. All of us were dazzled by this little trick and even though it took us only a brief moment to redirect our attention back to the stranger, by that time, he was already gone – and so was the money. Immediately, Skinny and Al stormed out of the saloon in an attempt to catch up with the man, “git’em,” we could hear them shout.
Silas got up, put on his hat, nodded at me, grabbed his cigar, and left, as well. I was still sitting there. Something was off. I felt like I was being watched. Turning around I knew what it was. The stranger hadn’t left the saloon. He was standing in the back, leaning against the wall, observing me with his bright eyes. In his hatband the dusty Jack of Diamonds. I got up and walked over to him.
“Lucky hand, eh,” I asked. The man chuckled, then reached into his coat pocket.
“Never lost a fair game… or played one,” he said, “Ain’t nothin’ easier than conning a pack o’hungry card sharks at their own game.”
He pulled out a card and handed it to me. I looked at it; it was the Five of Clubs. And then the stranger was gone.
After that night, I never cheated again, or played, for that matter. But in saloons all over the country I observed the card players, the gamblers, the sharks, the cheaters. From the back of the room I saw them, palming their cards, lifting stashed aces from their pockets, and at the same time accusing each other of foul play. And every now and then, when a game was particularly rotten, a tall man in an old coat would step up to the table, the dusty Jack of Diamonds tucked into his hatband.