Ayao walked upstairs into the smoky club and picked a fight.
“That fucker in the hat,” he said, pointing, “that fucker smashed and ran.”
The man in the hat was Faske. He stared Ayao down, said nothing. The Hold ‘Em game ground to a halt.
A genial host interceded. “Faske has been a regular forever. He fucks up once, we let it slide.”
“You let it slide,” said Ayao, “but I don’t. He beats me with a suck-out runner-runner straight draw, then he leaves before I can win my chips back.”
After a pause, Faske said, loudly, “If my cash ain’t welcome here, I’ll play in midtown. Green is green up there.”
“You’re welcome here,” the host said, “always and often. Drinks for everyone -”
“No, he ain’t welcome,” Ayao said, “not by my ink and not by my fists. You leaving, Faske, or am I throwing you down the stairs?”
A long pause. To the room, Faske said, “If Ayao jumps me, there are repercussions for this whole club.”
Grumbles sounded. The host’s detachment faded.
“Much as I respect Sulina and her card room,” Faske continued, “factors shift if blood spills. Ayao lands a punch, I close the place down. One call’s all it takes.”
The staff and players were against him now.
“We supposed to let you win, or else you rat us out?” Ayao spat at Faske. “Anyone can rat.”
“That’s right,” said Faske. “Cops answer any call. But I reach further up the food chain.” A blow to the back of his head ended the conversation.
Faske awoke in the basement. He was roped to a chair. Two members of the staff sipped coffee, watched him. Faske slowly found his voice. “This the base of operations?”
“The fuck you care?” the younger staffman said.
“This here’s the safest, deepest room we got,” the senior man said. “Can’t no one get here from the outside, or listen in. So go ahead and scream yourself hoarse.”
“I have bad news for your endeavor,” Faske said. “My friends won’t pay a ransom, but they’ll bleed you.”
“Perhaps,” the senior man said, “but we can’t let you loose if you might wreck Sulina’s club.”
“An average man goes missing, no one notices for days,” said Faske. “But I go missing, there’s a manhunt pronto.”
“What makes you so valuable?”
“Heard he jacked a formula from Gurbin’s men, to cook pure shit from trash,” the junior man said.
“That the case, Faske? Shank some toughs for chemistry notes?”
“Someone’s dead,” said Faske. “Not by my hand. I play cornet, I play poker. Product moves, and folks fare badly who obstruct me.”
“Product?” said the senior guy. “Are hit men on their way here ‘cause a junkie overplayed his hand? The ring of truth is absent.”
“So wait until you’re bleeding in the gutter,” Faske said, “then you see how loud the ringing sounds.”
“We should set him loose,” the junior man said. “I’m not dying over this guy.”
“Relax. He’s bluffing, like in Hold ‘Em. Faske don’t have connections.” The senior man downed his coffee.
“We cut you loose,” the junior man asked Faske, “we never hear from you again?”
“I had a grand in chips at the table ‘fore you dropped me. Cash me out and cut me loose, we have a deal.”
Senior man sat with the choice, puzzled through the permutations. “Fuck it,” he said, standing. “Pay you half and watch you leave, and that’s the offer.”
Junior man cut the cords that bound Faske to the chair; Faske dashed to the office door and opened it. Ayao had been waiting outside. He strode in and slammed the senior staffman’s skull. Faske tossed the junior through a window.
“They ain’t even locked the cash away,” said Faske. Piles of green covered a table across the basement.
“Gurbin will be mighty pleased,” Ayao replied. “The only threat to his midtown club, up in smoke.”
“We warning them or crippling them?” said Faske.
“The cash comes with us and the tables burn. Call it what you like.”