A Haunting on Long Island 4:
By Michael Phillip Cash
Publisher: Chelshire Inc
Publication Date: 6 August 2015
Genre: Paranormal Suspense, Urban Fantasy, Ghost Thrillers
Sometimes life, as well as death, is about second chances. Luckless Telly Martin doesn’t have a clue. An awful gambler trying to scrape by as a professional poker player, he becomes the protégé of world famous poker champion Clutch Henderson. The only catch…Clutch is a ghost.
Telly and Clutch must navigate the seedy gambling underbelly of Las Vegas learning to trust each other in order to win the elusive International Series of Poker, repair their shattered personal relationships and find redemption in this life and the hereafter.
Like taking candy from a baby, Clutch Henderson thought. He took a deep pull on his whiskey, allowing the burn to numb him from gullet to stomach. The room reeked of smoke, even though it was not allowed in the main ballroom during the tournament. Overhead, giant television screens focused on two players. Clutch looked up, winked, and watched the camera close in on his craggy face. I still got it. He smirked at his image. He was tall, lanky, and deeply tanned, which accentuated his silver hair and light eyes. Even though he was pushing seventy, he knew the ladies still found him attractive. They didn’t call him the Silver Fox for nothing. Clutch patted the blister pack of Viagra in the pocket of the polyester bowling shirt that he wore in homage to the Big Lebowski, the fictional kingpin legend. Gineva would be picking up a celebratory bottle of champagne right now, as soon as she clocked out at the Nugget. They wouldn’t give her the day off today—the bastards. There was a good chance he was going to make an honest woman out of her tonight…a rich, honest woman.
Clutch shifted in his seat, his hemorrhoids making their presence known. They burned his ass more than the cocky kid sitting opposite him. He looked over to his opponent who was sunk low in his seat, his face swallowed by the gray hoodie he wore. Adam “the Ant” Antonowski, boy wonder, who rose from the ranks of online card games, had beaten out a seemingly impossible one hundred sixty-five thousand players to earn a coveted seat at the International Series of Poker. His pimply face peeked out from under oversized sunglasses. Clutch sneered contemptuously at him. They let everybody play today. The kid did look bug-eyed with those enormous glasses. Adam curled his hands protectively over his cards, his bitten-down fingernails repulsive.
“Rookie,” Clutch muttered under his breath, his lips barely moving.
“Looks like Clutch Henderson is praying, folks,” Kevin Franklyn said into his mike from where he sat in a small room watching the game. He was a former champion turned seasoned sportscaster on the poker circuit, well respected, and the senior of the two anchormen. He was completely bald, his fleshy nose slightly off center on his craggy face, a victim of his youthful and unsuccessful boxing career. He’d made a mint once he turned to poker and had never looked back.
Stu James shook his head. “Clutch could be at his last prayers; this kid is the terminator.” Stu was a tall cowboy with wavy blond hair and mustache left over from his 1970s poker-playing heyday. He looked like a country singer.
“Let’s see if Clutch can exterminate the Ant,” Kevin replied.
They shared a laugh. The sportscasters wore matching light blue jackets with the Poker Channel logo on the chest.
Kevin nodded, placing his hand on his earbud, and said, “Yes, this is it, folks, in case you’ve just tuned in. A record fourteen thousand entrants, and it all comes down to this—the final moments. The rookie versus the pro: it could have been scripted by a screenwriter. David versus Goliath. Adam ‘the Ant’ Antonowski going up against the legendary Clutch Henderson.”
Kevin continued, “Legendary, yes, but Clutch has yet to take home that million-dollar bracelet, Stu. This must be his eighteenth try at the title.”
“Nineteenth. However, he did come in sixth place last year.”
Kevin nodded. “But the Ant is certainly the Cinderella story of the year. An online poker phenom who beat out thousands of players in a twenty-dollar online satellite game. And here he is today. How old is he?”
Stu turned around to a huge monitor. “I’m not quite sure, but I found out a lot about him earlier today when I interviewed him. Let’s take a look.”
Stu was in a suite overlooking the Strip. It was hotter than hell outside, but the room was icy cold. The Ant slouched in a Louis XV Bergere chair, his hands deep in the pocket of the jersey hoodie. The gold brocade of the chair was a stark contrast to the varied shades of gray he habitually wore. His Converse-clad feet lay propped on a golden rococo coffee table. Stu noticed that Adam seemed unaware that the rubber of his tennis shoes was peeling off the gilt surface of the coffee table. Every time he moved, another strip of paint flaked away.
Stu leaned forward, his large hands gesturing the spacious suite. “Nice room, Ant.” Everything about the newscaster was big, from his shoes to his huge chest. He was a former ranger-cum- football player and an avid golfer as well. The Ant truly resembled an insect next to the bigger man. “You have quite a view.”
The Ant shrugged indifferently. “I don’t care about stuff like this. I’m happy with a room in Motel 6.”
“This is a far cry from Motel 6. Why do they call you the Ant?”
“I’m small,” the Ant said. He smiled, revealing tiny, ferret-like teeth that looked mashed together. A frizzy curl escaped his hood to land over his shiny forehead. “But I can carry fifty times my weight in chips.” He laughed.
“Ha!” Stu joined him. “Fifty times. Is that what you’re expecting to take home?”
“Maybe more, if I can help it,” the Ant added defensively.
“Adam—I mean, Ant—you’re coming into the final table with little more than half the chips in play.” Stu paused for effect. “What’s your strategy in the face-off with the legendary Clutch Henderson?”
The Ant looked straight into the camera, his dark eyes fierce. “I want to eat that old shit alive.” The curse was bleeped out by the station.
Stu shifted uncomfortably. “That’s pretty competitive, son.”
“Let’s get this straight. I’m not your son, Stu.” This was said with dripping scorn.
“All right, Ant.” Stu’s voice turned decidedly cool; he did not like this kid. The sportscaster was freezing as well. What the hell was wrong with the air conditioner? Stu suppressed a shiver as he smoothed his mustache. The Ant was cold as ice; not a drop of human kindness flowed in his veins. Not only that, but he could swear the kid’s lips were turning blue. He wanted to end this farce and get out of Dodge. “So, how do you plan on winning against one of the greatest cash players of the last century?”
The Ant glanced out at the stark light in the picture windows. Heat shimmered in the desert, making the horizon look smeared and indistinct. The Strip was jammed already; a long line of red taillights filled the road as cars made their way down Las Vegas Boulevard.
The ants go marching one by one…Ant hummed the nursery song in his head, lost in the moment.
Stu pulled him back. “Ant?”
The younger man stared at him blankly, as if he’d just awakened. He twisted to look at the messy bar, just off camera. Crushed cans of beer and energy drinks littered the floor of the suite, and laundry was strewn all over the bedroom adjacent to the living area. Turning back slowly, dismissing one of the most important sports interviewers on television, the Ant said brusquely, “Next question.”
“All right.” Stu pursed his lips, trying not to lose patience. Maybe the kid is on something, he thought. He’d been playing in eighteen-hour shifts for days now, beating out thousands of players. The interview was going to the crapper fast, and this surly guy might be the next world champion. Give me something. He checked his notes and then blurted, “How does it feel to rise from relative obscurity and find yourself face-to-face with the one and only Clutch Henderson?”
“Look, this story is about me, right?” The Ant jabbed his finger into Stu’s face. “Not him. I’m the greatest player. I’m gonna create my own legacy, and it’s gonna be tonight.”
Stu sat back in his seat, shocked by the Ant’s hostility. “Isn’t that a little premature articulation?” Stu couldn’t help the jab. This kid was nuts. He must be wired on the cans of caffeinated drinks tossed all over the floor of the bar area.
The screen faded as the two sportscasters turned to face each other.
“Interesting interview, Stu. So, what did you really learn about Adam ‘the Ant’ Antonowski?” Kevin chuckled as he shook his bald head with amusement.
“Not a whole lot, Kev. He is a close-mouthed little guy.” Stu turned to gaze down at the single table where ten million dollars in cash had been strewn across the green baize in anticipation of the winner. A chunky gold bracelet glittered from the nest of cash, looking like pirate plunder. “It’s so quiet down there, you can actually hear the Ant thinking, I am the best player at this table.”
Kevin rolled a pen between his fingers. He looked at the camera and continued with his commentary. “The fairy-tale story versus the legend. Let’s not forget that Clutch may be the greatest earner in the history of the game: fifty million in lifetime earnings, one hundred twenty- one cashes, twelve final tables, and four number-one best-selling books.”
“What about his instructional videos? He made a mint with those in the nineties. Looks like the Ant’s asked for a break.Getting back to Clutch, he wrote what many call the Bible of Poker: Clutch Time: To Live and Die at the Poker Table. Will he make history tonight, Kevin?”
“He should. Been trained by the best—poker runs in the family.” They shared a laugh. “I’d call the Hendersons poker royalty.”
Kevin nodded in agreement. “I’ll say. Clutch is well-respected on the circuits; not many of those kind of guys left. He’s a true gentleman, a dying breed. I sat down and spoke with him earlier today. Let’s take a look.” Kevin turned back to the screen.
“You’re close,” Kevin grinned at Clutch. Clutch inclined his head with a gracious smile. They were in his residence, a ranch in the seedier part of Vegas. Clutch sat on a gold velvet sofa covered with plastic slipcovers in a heavy Mediterranean style left over from the seventies. His girlfriend, Ginny, beamed from the kitchen as the interview progressed. Just past fifty, she was a chubby Filipina with brassy blond hair that clashed with her olive complexion.
Kevin knew they’d been together for more than ten years, even though Clutch was still married to his wife, Jenny Henderson. Kevin paused for a minute and wondered if Clutch ever accidentally called Ginny Jenny or Jenny Ginny. That could make for some uncomfortable moments.
Ginny leaned against the doorjamb as the spotlight shined on Clutch’s silver head. She had pressed his shirt earlier today and made the sharp crease in his pants as well. His scuffed cowboy boots were too old to take the polish, and only she knew that cardboard replaced the worn soles.
“Very close,” Kevin pressed. “One play away from claiming your first-ever International Series Main Event bracelet.”
Clutch looked happy; his blue eyes were dreamy. “Livin’ the dream, man.” The camera caressed his face.
“How do you feel?”
Clutch cocked his head. “With my fingers,” Clutch said, wiggling his slender fingers for the camera. He glanced to Ginny as if to share a private joke. Winking, he smiled widely and a blush rose across her ample chest. She had great tits, Ginny did. Clutch knew that for a fact. He’d paid for them. He turned back to the interviewer. “Look, I’ve been playing this game since my granddaddy showed me the difference between an ace and a deuce. I’ve prepared my whole life. I’ve been taught by the best.”
“Buster Henderson practically created poker.”
“You ain’t lying,” Clutch agreed. “We didn’t have a kitchen table. We ate off a poker baize, and there was always a game going on. Ruthie, my grandmother, was a pretty good player too.”
“Yet it skipped a generation.”
“My daddy died on the beach in Normandy,” Clutch explained. “He never had time to learn the game.”
“And your mother?”
“Never knew her. Buster and Ruthie raised me. They lived and breathed poker.”
“Must have been an interesting childhood living with not only one, but two poker legends.”
“Yeah,” Clutch agreed darkly. “It was a barrel of laughs.”
“What do you think Buster would say to you if he were here today, as you enter the final table?”
“‘Better not screw this one up, boy, or I’m gonna kill you.’”
They shared a chuckle. “He was certainly a character,” Kevin added.
“Yep.” Clutch wasn’t smiling anymore. “A real character.”
“All kidding aside, even if you lose, second place has a hefty payout.” Kevin looked at his notes. “You stand to win four million.”
Clutch shook his head. “Sometimes it ain’t about the money. My grandpa won that bracelet over sixty years ago. It’s time for me to win mine.”
“Hmmm. Clutch, how do you feel about the advent of online players today—namely, your final opponent, the Ant?”
Clutch sat forward, his hands together, his face thoughtful. “The Internet has more porn than you can shake a stick at. What good is that? You can’t touch a computer. It’s sterile. In the end, the game ain’t real if it’s through a machine. Romance and cards have got to be in real time, face-to-face.” He let the comparisons sink in. “Nothing like the feel of a real woman.”
“Hilarious, Clutch.” Kevin laughed, sharing the macho moment with him.
“Now the real world has real women.” Clutch glanced back at Ginny, who grinned back at him. She had the worst teeth. They’d never fixed her teeth in the Philippines when she was a child. That was the first thing he was going to do when he won, take her to have implants. Well, after he got a new car, paid his bookies, and paid off his back child support. She never asked for anything, Ginny. She was a good woman. “Poker is a game about communication. It’s about reading people, knowing what they are thinking. You can’t communicate over the Internet. You can’t have a relationship with a keyboard and a screen—well, at least not an honest one. You can’t learn poker with a machine. Ain’t natural.”
“Have you got any old tricks up your sleeve?”
Clutch looked at the frayed fabric of his dress shirt. The stripes were so old that there was just a hint of color in the thin cotton. He looked at the gray hairs sticking out of the cuff. He touched the bony point of his wrist, imagining the heavy weight of the bracelet. His grandpa had left his bracelet to Clutch’s cousin, Alf, who had never even played poker. Clutch had wanted it for so long—every year scraping the money together to get into the tournament, playing with infants, hacks, and women who thought they could flirt him out of the game.
He was good. He knew he was the best, and he should’ve won a hundred times. He shook his head. A thousand times. It came so close, so very close, only to escape his clutches.
“Clutch…” Kevin’s insistent voice interrupted his wandering mind, pulling him back. “Clutch, you were saying?”
“Oh, we gonna teach that lil’ doggy how to make pee pee on a wee-wee pad.” The screen faded to black.
Kevin’s shoulders shook with laughter. He turned to Stu. “That Clutch—he is something else.”
“I’ll say. I think he has his metaphors confused. He may need a can of Raid instead of a wee- wee pad. Oh, the Ant is back from his break. Let’s see how the game is going.”
Clutch and the Ant sat opposite each other, the room tense and silent. The older man pressed his cards into the table, bending just the tip to glance at the letters or numbers in the corner. Kings, a good solid hand. He kept his face impassive, stifling a yawn. The Ant simply ignored him, a bored expression on his face. Between them, a colorful cascade of chips littered the table. The room crackled with excitement.
Clutch looked up at the dealer, who stonily stared into space. He smiled, and the dealer turned and nodded respectfully, revealing perfect teeth against his dark skin. They both looked to the Ant, who bristled with hostility.
Clutch narrowed his eyes, and a trickle of sweat began to make its way down from his temple. He stared hard at the Ant, whose dark glasses made him an enigma. The Ant was looking everywhere except at him. Why wasn’t the kid studying him, looking for tells, the signs that hint at what he is holding? He watched his opponent intently. The Ant glanced upward before he made a move, as if asking permission from the atmosphere. While he couldn’t see the kid’s eyes because of the dark glasses, Clutch knew he was looking toward the ceiling from the tilt of his head. A few times, Clutch caught his own eyes gazing in the same direction, wondering what the punk was up to. The room became hot. He was willing to take this to the mats. Based on the kid’s whitened fingertips, Clutch’s gut told him the younger man had nothing.
Clutch had a decent hand. He peered at the Ant’s cards on the table, as if he could see through the design to the faces hidden underneath. The kid liked to bluff; he had watched him do it all through the tourney. Clutch was willing to bet his last chip that the Ant had a junk hand. “Check,” Clutch said quietly.
“No check, old man. I bet three million.” The Ant pushed five stacks into the middle of the table. The crowd hummed with excitement. The Ant pulled off his glasses to glare hard at Clutch, his mouth pulled tight with intensity. Clutch looked into the younger man’s eyes and saw nothing. Nothing.
Clutch shrugged. “You wannabes sure think you know how this game is played. Lemme tell you something, partner…” He placed his Stetson on his head as if to make a point.
“Spare me the sage advice, Cowpoke. You’re done. I’m waiting to stick a fork in you.”
“Eight million,” Clutch said, his voice serious. The crowd applauded loudly as he pushed in a huge pile of chips.
“I just started, Pops, and you want to go down in flames already. Raise! All in,” the Ant sneered.
Clutch waited. He had patience. A murmur echoed through the room. He could swear he heard the ticking of a clock. He wanted to draw out the moment. His heart started to pound in his chest, pulsing so hard he felt it all the way to his toes. “Call,” he said so quietly that the dealer leaned forward to confirm.
The Ant dramatically turned over his cards, revealing an ace and a seven, both of them hearts. The red cards reflected back at Clutch until they filled his vision.
A slow smile spread across Clutch’s impassive face. He watched the younger man, savoring the glory as he slowly flipped his cards, revealing pocket kings. He had two kings—a good hand. Not unbeatable, but the kid had nothing but an overcard.
“Here comes the flop,” Clutch said aloud as he watched the dealer place the ace of spades and Clutch’s own heart sank in his chest. Now the Ant had a higher hand: two aces. The crowd’s gasp turned into a roar as the dealer spread the next two cards on the baize, revealing a king of hearts and deuce of hearts. He’d dodged a bullet; his three kings would beat the Ant’s two aces. Clutch took off his cowboy hat; the sweatband was soaked. His silver hair lay plastered against his head, the imprint of his hat looking like he had worn a vise. “Trip cowboys, pissant.” Clutch drew out the last word into a hiss.
On the table were two hearts. Two cards were yet to be revealed: the Turn, and then the River. Sixty-forty in Clutch’s favor, he estimated. Clutch felt his heart quiver with uncertainty.
The kid had a draw, two cards to go, and all Clutch needed to do was avoid a heart that did not match the table to claim his prize. The crowd exploded. The Ant stared at the card on the table, his expression hostile.
“We don’t need a commentary, old man. I got eyes. I can see,” the Ant snapped. The Ant’s dark eyes glazed over for a minute; he looked away and then turned back, his attention restored.
Clutch sat back in his chair, suddenly tired. His shoulders ached, and he longed to be back home in bed watching television. But the bracelet. He was so close. He glanced at the Ant’s cards and then studied his own. The patterns swam before his tired eyes as though they were alive. He was there, almost there. He could feel the heavy weight of the bracelet on his skinny wrist…the cash in his empty pocket.
Sweat dotted the Ant’s upper lip, and his eye twitched. There were so many chips spread across the table that the pot seemed obscene.
The Ant half rose from his seat, his face eager. His dark eyes glowed hotly, with red pinpoints in the pupils. He looked demented. His fingers pressed whitely against the green baize of the table. All he needed was another heart, and there were two cards left to go.
The Ant stood completely; Clutch was surprised at how short he was. He would barely reach Clutch’s shoulder. “Great hand, Pops,” the Ant nodded sarcastically. “But you need heart to play this game.”
The dealer barely breathed as he waited for the right moment to deal the next card, the Turn.
The crowd stood together as if on cue, the babble of thousands of voices drowning out the pulse in Clutch’s head. His body thrummed, and his face grew as red as the cards, sweat drenching his shirt so that it was plastered against his tense body.
Feeling his collar choke him, Clutch undid the top button of his shirt. Suddently it occurred to him that he might come in second. It would be a nice purse, four million at least. But after taxes and the funds to pay off the loan sharks, he’d barely have enough for his kid or Ginny’s teeth. Truth was, he didn’t give a shit about the dough—he wanted the bracelet. He needed that trophy to wear on his wrist for the rest of his miserable life. Too bad Buster wasn’t alive to see it. He wanted to shove it in his face and gloat. It sparkled from its spot on the table. Clutch swallowed convulsively, his neck feeling tight. He looked at the creep across the table. The Ant didn’t deserve it; Clutch did. This was the closest he’d ever come. He stared at the bracelet, the gold at the end of the rainbow. He could hear his grandfather’s voice, dead these last forty- five years, saying, “It’s about the game, stupid. Not the gold.
You play like crap. You never listen to me, boy.” Yeah, Clutch sneered, easy for you to say. You won a bracelet in 1954. Clutch glanced down at his two cards, his kings. With the third on the table, he had three kings, a good hand. He had to piss…really bad.
The dealer turned over a six of clubs. The audience moaned. A black card, not a heart. Without the fifth heart, the kid would bust. Clutch’s breath stilled in his chest. He was almost there. His heart pounded in his chest as if it were a kettledrum. One last card to go. He looked at the insect’s hand. The kid’s hands were trembling, his knuckles bony white like a skeleton. He had nothing. This was it. He had this. The dealer paused, his hand hovering over the deck. His manicured fingers caressed the top card, and then he flipped it onto the green table. An eight of hearts lay on the baize, earning the Ant a winning flush. The crowd buzzed, a thousand voices washing over Clutch’s numb face. His breath left him in a slow deflation until he felt flat. He wanted to disappear.
The Ant yelled like a little girl, his hands high up in the air. He pranced in front of the bleachers to the screaming fans and then mugged the camera. Kevin raced from his spot, mike in hand, to the older man. “Clutch! Clutch! What happened? That was so fast.”
Clutch stared at the cards, his face impassive, the pain of his broken heart heavy in his chest. “I…I…” Words failed him. He couldn’t breathe. The room was stifling, closing in on him. His vision narrowed to the cluster of cards on the table and the bracelet winking at him. They shimmered before him; the noise of the spectators was muffled. His ears rang. He still had to pee. In fact, he was drowning. He heard laughter. It was familiar. He looked around frantically to see who was laughing at him. The pain started in his chest and radiated to his shoulders, clamping around his jawline. His eyes dimmed.
He felt Kevin’s chubby hand grip his shoulder. It hurt. The announcer’s voice came from far away. “Clutch…Clutch, are you OK?”
No, he wanted to scream, but his own voice seemed foreign, the words coming out jumbled and thick. No, my dream died. He watched the room recede, the world strangely quiet, as the floor came up to meet his chin.
The Ant turned to see the older man fall. Oh, he thought as he heard Clutch’s head connect with the floor. That’s gotta hurt. He turned to his adoring fans and pumped his fist into the air, the bracelet gripped in his clenched hand.
Kevin struggled to get down on his knees. “Clutch…Clutch.” He shook the old man’s shoulder. His face drained of color. “Get an ambulance,” he screamed. He looked closely at Clutch. “Help…” he said sadly, knowing it was too late for an ambulance. They needed a hearse.
Michael Phillip Cash is an award-winning novelist and screenwriter. His novels are best-sellers on Amazon under their genres – Young Adult, Thriller, Suspense, Ghost, Action Adventure, Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, and Horror. Michael writes full-time and lives on the North Shore of Long Island with his wonderful wife and screaming children.