They waited on the pavement outside the casino while a doorman braved the rain to fetch Harry’s car. Above them, a ragged corner of the awning flapped in the wind. Paolo Ferri had draped his coat over his shoulders without inserting his arms into the sleeves.
‘Man, you really scared them in there tonight,’ he said.
Harry shrugged. He had won money on the craps table, then lost it, that was all. With the crowds around the game cheering him on, he had rolled number after number. A pit boss was lurking behind the dealers as they paid out the bets, lunging back and forth, their faces shining with sweat under the lights. Harry had taken a savage pleasure in the man’s worried expression as the money poured out across the table. He had held the dice for half an hour and for all that time his sixty two years were dismissed and he had been young again.
But in the end he hadn’t scared anybody.
His Audi slid up to the kerb.
‘Do you need a lift?’ he said, hoping the Italian would say no.
But Ferri nodded and walked round to the passenger side. The young Chinese doorman stood holding the driver’s door, waiting for his tip. Harry patted his pockets, muttered an apology in Cantonese and slid behind the wheel. The doorman’s smile vanished and he stalked away without closing the door.
They sat at the end of the road, waiting for the lights to change. Harry stared blindly through the windscreen. He had won £54,600 on that roll. Fifty four thousand, six hundred. And in the delirium that followed, with all the other players chanting his name, begging him to shoot the dice again, he had bet it all, and they had bet with him. Ferri, Danvers, Bettancourt - all the sad, shabby gang that crowded round the long table in the Golden Gate Casino every night of the week. They had staked everything they had in front of them. They had believed in him, believed in his power, just as he had himself. One more winning streak before the casino closed for the night. One more bolt of lightning from whatever God held the reins of fortune.
The red dice were passed across the table to him. Drinking in the silence around the game, he had picked them up. The nerve endings in his fingers jumped as they touched the sharp corners, the white spots. He paused for the time needed to take one long breath and then, with an absolute certainty of winning, let the dice fly with the loose-limbed confidence of a man half his age. But with them launched into the air, turning, tumbling, his eyes wandered for a fraction of a second and met the cynical smile of one of the dealers who was watching him from the other end of the table.
‘My bets are off,’ Harry tried to shout, but the dice were already skittering off the end wall of the table and coming to rest on a seven.
‘Seven out, straight out,’ called the stickman and the dealers pounced on the money. A huge groan went up and then a storm of cursing stabbed at Harry from all sides.
Dice players were always like that. Any former heroism was wiped out in an instant by later failure. Everyone had a sour word for him as they drifted away until only he and Ferri were left. The dealers ignored them, tidying the chips and laughing amongst themselves. Harry stared down at the grimy cloth of the table. The world had faded and resumed its dull colours. His arm, so powerful moments before, had withered. He raised his head and looked around. The roulette tables were closing and players were running from one to the other, swept towards the last bet of the night like pheasants towards a line of guns. Abandoned drinks tainted with ash and lipstick littered the side tables. Half-eaten sandwiches lay everywhere, marked by hands grubby from handling money.
Like a soldier leaving a battlefield, he had pushed himself away from the dice table and climbed the stairs to the rain-filled street.
Ferri interrupted his thoughts. ‘What was that you said back there, to the car jockey?’
‘What?’ He had forgotten Ferri. ‘I just apologised for not having a tip for him.’
The lights changed and Harry pulled away. ‘Yes.’ He glanced over at Ferri who was shaking his head. ‘What’s wrong with you?’
‘Harry, don’t tell me you speak Chinese.’ Ferri started laughing. ‘You don’t.’
He had turned sideways in the passenger seat. ‘Listen, tell me you’re not joking about this. You can speak Chinese? – really speak it, I mean. Not some stupid phrases you picked up from reading novels.’
Harry sighed. His childhood, so barren and painful for him, never failed to fascinate other people. He had never talked to Ferri about anything but gambling before but now he found himself explaining how his father had been posted to the British Embassy in Hong Kong after the War. He told Ferri about his childhood nurse – ‘She was Cantonese. An amah, they call them there. Most of my Cantonese, I learnt from her. I speak Mandarin too, but not nearly as fluently.’
Most of the diplomats sent their children to boarding school in England but Harry’s parents had sent him to an ordinary local school. Perhaps it was there that the loneliness had begun. He remembered a circle of horrified Chinese faces peering at him in the playground, holding their noses. The insults and, as he grew older, the isolation and the casual violence. He had never complained. He had learned to stay quiet, to be unremarkable, in spite of his size. And at sixteen he had been sent home to finish his education. The British public school was an even more alien environment. On the dank playing fields, in the wood-panelled corridors, he had dreamt of Hong Kong, mocking himself for missing the place he had been so eager to escape.
‘It was a strange childhood,’ he said.
But Ferri wasn’t listening. He was drumming his fingers on the black vinyl of the dashboard, frowning.
‘Put your seat belt on, would you?’ said Harry. ‘I’m the one that gets fined if the police stop us.’
Ferri ignored him. ‘There’s this office building near Centre Point. I’m handling the sale for a friend of my wife.’
‘Really?’ Harry said, swallowing a yawn. He knew that Ferri was a solicitor and he had met his wife once when she had come to the casino. Harry had been struck by her slender vulnerability. He remembered her standing among the raucous dice players, her sad head bowed. It was obvious she despaired of her husband and loved him in equal measure.
‘You should see the place,’ said Ferri. ‘Why don’t we go and have a quick look? I’ve got the keys right here.’ He patted his pocket.
‘I have to be up early,’ Harry lied. ‘Anyway, why would I want to see an office building at this time of night?’
But Ferri was looking at him oddly. ‘Harry, you really should take a look at this place.’
The next set of lights were red and they stopped again. Ferri was still sitting sideways in his seat, nodding with great emphasis. ‘Honestly, you should.’
Harry sighed. ‘I don’t understand why this is so important at four in the morning.’
But Ferri just kept nodding and smiling. ‘Go on, turn right here.’ He gestured to his right. ‘You can cut down Oxford Street at this time of night.’
There was something strange about Ferri’s enthusiasm. On other occasions that Harry had given him a lift home, he had sat slumped in his seat. If he talked at all, it was only to complain about his losses at the casino.
‘I’d rather just drop you home,’ said Harry.
‘Trust me, will you? This is something you’d be interested in. Something . . .’ The Italian hesitated and bit his nails.
‘Just tell me. What is it?’ The lights changed and Harry shoved the car into gear.
‘You have to see it. Harry, come on. Ten minutes. Once I show you the place it’ll be easier to explain.’
A horn blared behind them and Harry cursed, twisting the steering wheel and accelerating. The car leapt into the side road, the back end sliding for a second with a howl of rubber. He glanced at Ferri again hoping to see some sign of alarm but Ferri, still without his seatbelt, was grinning.
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