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A Gambling Man - Chapter 2

IN HIS HOTEL ROOM, which looked like a shower stall with halfhearted
ambition, Archer ditched his hat on the bed, tucked his satchel in the narrow
closet with two feeble hangers dangling from the wooden rod, and sat in the
one chair by the one window. He parted the faded and frayed curtains and
stared out at Reno. It just looked average, maybe a little below that, in fact.
Yet maybe it punched above its weight, like he always tried to do.

He smoked another Lucky and took a drink from the flask he carried in
his jacket pocket. Archer didn’t need beautiful women, watery wine, or
golden boulevards. He just desired a steady paycheck, something interesting
to do with his time, and the small slice of self-respect that came with both.

The rye whiskey went down slow and burned deliciously along the way.
Thus fortified, he took out the letter typed on sandpaper stationery with the
name “Willie Dash, Very Private Investigations” imprinted at the top and
giving an address and a five-digit phone number in Bay Town, California.
Included with the letter was the man’s business card, stiff and serious
looking with the same address and telephone information as the letter. A
tiny magnifying glass rode right under the business name. Archer liked the
effect. He hoped he liked the man behind it. More to the point, he hoped
Willie Dash liked him.

The missive was in response to one Archer had written to Dash at the
advice of Irving Shaw, a state police detective Archer had met while in a
place called Poca City, where Archer had served his parole. Shaw and Dash
were old friends, and Shaw believed Archer had the makings of a gumshoe;
he’d thought Dash might be a good mentor for him. Archer had mentioned
Shaw in the letter because he hoped it would move Dash to at least write

Not only had Dash written back but he’d suggested that Archer come to
Bay Town and see what might be possible. He had promised Archer no job,
just the opportunity to seek one, depending on how Dash viewed things.
Archer didn’t need false promises or mealy-mouthed platitudes. He just
needed a fair shot.

He put the letter and business card back in his jacket pocket, gazed out
the window again, and noted that it was nearing the dinner hour. He had
passed clusters of eateries along the way here, and one had stood out to him
because it had also been the establishment naughty Ginger had told him

He grabbed his hat, pocketed his hefty room key, which could double as a
blunt instrument if need be, and set out to fill his time and his belly.

It was a short walk to the Dancing Birds Café. The place was tucked
away down a side street off Reno’s main drag. The broad windows were
canopied by red-and-green-striped awnings, the door was solid oak with a
brass knocker barnacled to the wood, and a flickering gas lantern hung on
the wall to the right of the door. Archer took a moment to light up a Lucky
off the open flame. Breathing in the methane reminded him of the war,
where if you weren’t sucking foul odors like cordite into your lungs, you’d
think you were either dead or someone had upped and taken the war

He opened the door and surveyed the place. Seven in the evening on the
dot, and it was packed as tight as a passenger ship’s steerage class, only
these people were better dressed and drinking niftier booze. Waiters in
black bow ties and short white jackets seemed to hop, skip, and jump in
frenetic furtherance of their duties. Archer looked for the “dancing birds”
but saw no evidence of winged creatures performing the jitterbug. Either
the place was misnamed, or he was in for a real surprise at some point.

At the far end of the room was a raised stage with a curtain, like one
would see at a theater. As Archer stood there, hat in hand, the curtains
parted and out stepped four long-limbed platinum blondes dressed so
skimpily they looked ready to hop into bed for something other than sleep.
Each of them held a very large and very fake bird feather in front of them.

A short, tubby man in a penguin suit waddled onstage and over to a
microphone the size of two meaty fists resting on a stand. With deliberate
dramatics he announced that the four ladies were the eponymous Dancing
Birds and would be performing for the entertainment of the patrons now either eating or, in the case of half the tables that Archer could see, drinking
their dinners.

About the time the ladies started to sing and hoof it across the wooden
stage while twirling their feathers and twitching their hips, a bow-tied gent
came up and told Archer there was room for him if he didn’t mind sharing a

“Works for me,” Archer said amiably.

He was led to a table that was nestled right next to the stage, where a man
in his fifties sat. He was short and well-fed, and his calm, regal expression
and sharply focused eyes told Archer that he was a man used to giving
orders and seeing them obeyed, which was a decent gig if you could get it
and then hold on to it. The tux handed Archer a stiff menu with the food
items written in free-flowing calligraphy, took his order for three fingers of
whiskey and one of water, and departed. Archer hung his fedora on the seat
back and nodded to the other man.

“Thanks for the accommodation, mister,” he said.

He nodded back but didn’t look at Archer; he kept his gaze on the Birds.

When Archer’s drink came the man turned and eyed the whiskey. “Good
choice. It’s one of the best they serve.”

“You have knowledge of the bar here?”

“In a way. I own the place. Max Shyner.” He raised a flute of champagne
and clinked it against the whiskey glass.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Shyner. My name’s Archer. And thanks a second
time for the table spot, then. Wondered why you had such a good seat for
the show.”

“You like the Dancing Birds?” he said, returning his gaze to the stage.

Archer gave a long look at the Bird on the end, who responded with a
hike of her eyebrows, the lift of a long fishnet-stockinged leg in a dance
kick, and a come-hither smile before she tap-tapped to the other end of the
stage with the rest of the feathered flock.

“Let me just say how could a breathing man not?”

“You just in town?” Shyner asked.

“Why, do I look it?”

“I know most of the regulars.”

“Passing through. Bus out tomorrow.”

“Where to?”

“West of here,” he said vaguely, not wanting to offer anything more.

“California, then?” Shyner said.


“Well, son, any farther west and you’d be drinking the Pacific.”

“Suppose so,” replied Archer as he took a sip of the whiskey. He picked
up the menu. “Recommend anything?”

“The steak, and the asparagus. They both come from near here. Get the
Béarnaise sauce. You know what that is?”

“We’ll find out.” Archer gave that order to the waiter when he next came
by and got a finger of whiskey added to what he had left. “So how long
have you owned this place?”

“Long enough. I was born in Reno. Most are from someplace else, at
least now. Great transition after the war, you see.”

“I guess I’m one of them,” replied Archer.

“Where in California? I got contacts, in case you’re looking for work.”

“Thanks, but I think I got something lined up.”

“The Golden State is growing, all right, why people like you are rushing
to get there. Me, I’m more than content with this piece of the pie.”

“Who’s she?” asked Archer, indicating the Bird who had given him the

“Liberty Callahan, one of my best. Sweet gal.” He pointed a finger at
Archer. “No ideas, son. She wants to get into acting. Don’t think she’ll be
here long, much to my regret.”

“I’m just passing through, like I said. I’ve got no ideas about her or any
other lady.”

Shyner leaned forward, his look intense and probing. “You like to

“My whole life’s been a gamble.”

“I mean, in a casino?”

Archer shook his head.

Shyner drew a fist of cash from his pocket and peeled off fifty dollars in

“You take this, with my compliments, and go try your luck at the
Wheelhouse. It’s my place.”

“You give out folding money to all the folks passing by?” said Archer. “If
you do, you might want to stop before you run out.”

Shyner leaned in more so Archer could smell the champagne on the
man’s breath and Old Spice cologne on the ruddy cheeks. “Little something you need to know about casinos, young fella. No matter what the game, the
casinos have the edge. With blackjack and roulette it’s a little less, with
craps and slots a little more. But there’s no game where the House doesn’t
have the advantage. My job is to get folks into my place. Even if I have to
front them a bit. In the long run it pays off for me.”

“Well, with that warning, aren’t you defeating your purpose of

Shyner laughed. “You forget the element of human nature. I give you a
little seed money and you’ll pay that back and more on top in no time.”

“Never got the point of gambling. Life’s uncertain enough as it is.”

“Gambling will be here long after I’m dead and buried, and you too.
People are born with weaknesses and they pass them on. Sort of like
Darwinism, only the stupid survive.”

“I might try your place, but I’ll do it with my own coin, thanks.”

“You sure?”

“Sure as I’m sitting here with a man who owns a casino.”

Shyner put the cash away and lit up a short, thin cigar and blew wobbly
rings to the high plastered ceiling. “You surprise me, Archer. I’ve done that
fifty-dollar bit more times than I can remember and you’re the first to turn it

“So what about all those casinos in Las Vegas? Don’t they give you

Shyner waved this concern away. “In twenty years it’ll be a ghost town
and no one will even remember the name Las Vegas, you mark my words.”

His steak and asparagus came, and Archer ate and washed it down with
another two fingers.

“Can I at least comp your meal, Archer?”

“What do I have to do in return?”

“Just go to my casino. Two blocks over to the west. You can’t miss it.”
Archer laid down a dollar for his meal and drinks.

“So you’re not going to the Wheelhouse then?” said Shyner in a
disappointed tone.

“No, I am. Just on my terms instead of yours.”

“Action doesn’t start up till around ten. You’ll want the full picture.”

As he left, Archer gave Liberty Callahan a tip of his hat as she was
singing a solo while reclining on a baby grand piano that had been wheeled
onstage. She hit him with a dazzling smile and then kept right on singing without missing a beat. Her voice sounded awfully good to Archer. She
waved bye-bye with her fake feather as he left the nest.

Archer had to admit, he liked the lady’s style.