Another player, long-faced and thin of hair, said, “Fold,” and threw his cards into the middle. The player to his left, a triple-chinned blond with flushed cheeks, looked at the man who had made the bet and said, “Five grand?” His eyebrows went up. “What did you pick up?”

“See me and I’ll show you,” said the first player.

It looked to Chesney like a poker game. The stakes were higher than actuaries played for, but it was not much different than the games he had played with guys from work. “What makes it illegal?” he said.

“See the guy here?” the demon said, pointing at the screen. A square-jawed man wearing an old-fashioned eyeshade held the deck in one hand and was picking up the cards that the man who folded had tossed into the pot. “He’s the house. He don’t play and he collects a percentage of the money when they settle up at the end. That’s against the law in this state.”

“Is the dealer a member of organized crime?”

“Name’s Sal Feore. It’s a mob-run game. In a mob-run cathouse. Look.” The fiend made the image change, as if a camera had pulled back for a wider shot. In the darker reaches of the room, Chesney saw couches and chairs on which sat women wearing next to nothing. A tall redhead crossed the room from left to right, bringing a glass of whiskey to one of the players; she wore nothing but a smile and a pair of high heels.

“Sheesh,” said Chesney. Still, he wanted to be certain that he was operating in a pool of light as clear as that which illuminated the poker table. “And the players, you said they’re racketeers.”

“No, you said that. I said they do shady deals. Bribes, kickbacks, a little of the old now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t.”

“Give me a for-instance,” the young man said. “The guy who bet five thousand, what’s his game?”

The demon said, “That mug? He’s into a lot of different things. He’s one of the partners in that new development that’s going in on the south side–a silent partner, if you know what I mean.”

“Let’s say I don’t,” said Chesney.

“He gets three per cent of the revenues, but his name don’t appear on no deeds or contracts. And what he gets don’t appear on his tax return neither.”

“Why do they give him three per cent? What does he put in?”

Xaphan tapped ash from his cigar. “He makes sure that no city inspectors come sniffin around the site, maybe holdin things up.”

“A corrupt official!” said Chesney.

“Couldn’ta said it better myself. The guy’s on the take.”

“And the others?”

“Skinny guy who folded, he fixes traffic tickets in the DA’s office, makes sure paperwork gets lost, tells cops to look the other way.”

“What about the fat one?”

“Banker.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“He takes dirty money, makes it clean.”

Chesney had heard enough. “Let’s bust them!”

“Okay. How you wanna go about it?”

“What do you suggest?”

The demon puffed his cigar and said, “Thing is, these mugs got juice downtown. That’s why their game never gets raided.”

“So we can’t just tie them up and call Lieutenant Denby?”

“Nah. He’d get overruled, soon as they heard the address.”

“Then what do we do?”

“We could cheat.”

“What do you mean?”

The demon smiled a weasel smile. “We change the address.” He gestured at the screen, which now showed a new location.

An illegal poker game, even one attended by scantily clad ladies of the evening, did not constitute a major crime. So Lieutenant Denby, as the duty officer of the Major Crimes Squad, was not among the first responders to the outraged telephone calls that began to come into Police Central a few minutes after midnight. That responsibility fell to two uniformed officers on patrol in a car painted black and white and with blue and red lights on top.

The lights were flashing when the policemen showed up, but the several people seated around the poker table or on chairs and other furniture tastefully arranged around the scene paid them no attention. The senior of the two patrolmen, George “Tick” Webber, radioed in that the pair might need back-up; then he and his younger partner, Carmela Ortiz, got out of the vehicle and approached the group.

“Holy . . .,” Webber began, then found himself at a loss for words as he watched the tall, naked redhead saunter across the open space and hand a glass of what he presumed to be liquor being illegally consumed in a public place to one of the poker players. The man accepted the drink and patted the woman’s well formed buttock, then returned his attention to the cards. It was only then that Ortiz drew his attention to the activity that was being transacted between a paunchy, middle-aged man seated on a couch in his underwear while a young brunette with an apparently high tolerance for silicone knelt before him and made herself useful in a manner that was still technically illegal in several parts of the Bible Belt.

“Hey!” Officer Webber shouted. “Stop that!” Nobody paid him any attention. He blinked and rubbed his eyes. Ortiz was reaching for her weapon. “Wait,” he told her, then lifted his portable radio and said, “Dispatch, alert the command sergeant. We are going to need two paddy wagons and at least two more teams of patrolmen.”

The radio crackled. “Back-up’s on the way. Is it gang-related?”

Webber knew better than to use expletives over police band airwaves. Certain civic-minded citizens, their ears glued to police monitors, made a point of calling Commissioner Hanshaw and Mayor Greeley if those ears were affronted by low and rough language. “No, it’s . . .”–he sought for a word then went with–“perversion-related.”

“The funny thing is,” Ortiz said, “they act like we’re not even here.” Sirens sounded in the distance, coming rapidly closer. “See that? Sirens, our lights, and they don’t even look round.”

The brunette was speeding up her rhythm. The heavy-bellied man on the couch groaned.

Webber looked around. Civic Plaza was only three blocks from Police Central. More blue lights were visible in that direction, coming closer fast. He turned back to the scene before him: a carpeted, furnished room; men playing poker; near-naked women who were oviously not their wives or girlfriends lounging around or performing intimate acts. And all of it was taking place right smack dab in the middle of the brightly lit Civic Plaza, a broad expanse of pavement, fountains and benches that stretched from the imposing classical facade of the Justice Center on the square’s east side to the chrome-and-glass modernity of City Hall on the west. Worse yet, the north side of the plaza was lined with up-market, high-rise condominium towers whose residents were some of the city’s cream. Quite a few of those worthies were standing on their balconies, some of them in their nightclothes, and several with phones to their lips.

From high above, Webber heard a voice that was used to issuing orders and seeing them obeyed. “Officers,” it said, “do your duty!”

“I guess we’re gonna,” Webber said to Ortiz. With his hand on his holstered nine-millimeter pistol, he stepped between two armchairs and said, “Nobody move!”

Later, describing the moment to the command sergeant, the officer would say that it was as if he had stepped though a wall and suddenly become visible to the people around the table. A fat, blond man jumped up and said, “Holy,” in just the same tone as Webber had used the word, but he followed it with an even shorter word that described an act most people considered pleasurable but not holy.

One of the women screamed. The redhead stared at Webber and said, “How did you do that?” then jumped back startled, when Officer Ortiz followed him onto the carpet.

And then, as the back-up cars screeched to a halt just short of the scene, with the two paddy wagons coming up behind, followed by a tv crew’s satellite-equipped van, the card players and courtesans looked around as if seeing for the first time that they were out in the middle of Civic Plaza. They said things like, “What the . . .” and “What happened?”

Only the kneeling brunette and the man who was the focus of her attention failed to notice, both being fully occupied in their transaction. Ortiz went over to them, tapped the woman on the shoulder and said, “You’ll have to finish that later, hon.”

As the skinny man was cuffed and led away, he said to Officer Webber, “Do you know who I am?”

“No,” said the patrolman, “but I can’t wait to find out.”


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