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Hot Hand

by Simon Hole

There was a TV show that Grandma Malkewich used to watch when she was babysitting us. I don’t remember much about it except the tag line at the end. It went something like, “There are millions of stories in the city.” That may be true, but most stories don’t amount to much. Most never get told and of the few that do, well, most of those are soon forgotten. Sure, there might be a million stories in the city, but 999,999 of them are no more than a wisp of smoke, appearing only briefly before the wind carries them away.

So that leaves just one in a million, one story that somehow captures the imagination of enough people that it gets told and retold. One story that lives on over the years and in the telling and retelling, that story grows and stretches and becomes more legend than truth and then more myth than anything else. Around these parts it’s the story of Joe Parker, Kelly O’Shea, and the night the old Polish-American Club up in the Heights burned down.

Even though it’s been over thirty years since Kelly and Parker disappeared, you can’t live in this part of town for long before you hear some version of it, especially if you sit at a poker table now and then.

If you wanted to dig around a bit, wanted to try to separate the facts from the fiction, you could hit the library and read the papers from back then. As I remember, it made the front page for a couple of days in a row and then again later when the arson squad filed their report. You could do that, and it would give you the bare bones of the story:

A poker game breaks up after a dispute between two players. Shortly after everyone leaves, a fire starts and burns down the club.

A body is found in the alley that ran along the club, a body so severely burned that it was never positively identified. A partially melted gun is found near the body.

The search for the two men involved in the dispute comes up empty. Neither man is ever found. An arson report is released but doesn’t explain the intense heat required to turn a man’s body, bones and all, into ashes and melt a gun.

If you were looking to flesh out the story a bit, to gather a few more facts, you might try to find the men playing in the game that night. Those still alive could tell you about the hand that started the dispute, but not much more. Most of them were long gone before the fire. If you searched hard enough, you might find the one player who was still around when the fire broke out. And if you bought me enough beers, I might be coaxed into telling you what really happened that night.

That’s right, me. Stanley Malkewich. I was there.

I’d known Kelly since high school but never had much to do with him. He was a jock and a bit of a bully. He had a temper even back then, and me, I was just keeping my head down and trying to get through those crappy high school years. When he started coming to the Friday night games at the club we were both in our early 30’s. Neither of us ever said anything about school. I’m pretty sure he didn’t remember me.

So Kelly had been a regular at the game for about a year before Parker showed up. That was about six months before the fire. I forget who brought Parker into the game. It might have been Krolikowski, a big, bearded kid who couldn’t play poker worth a damn. He’d play any two cards and, when he lost, he’d try to make it up on the next hand. His wife made him quit after he’d lost the grocery money once too often.

Like I said, Parker was a regular for maybe six months before the club burned down, so I got to know him a bit and invited him to play in Roger’s Wednesday night game at the cigar club. And I know he used to play at Springer’s house on Mondays, too.

I probably knew him as well as anyone did, but that’s not saying much. We weren’t friends exactly, but we talked. I knew he was divorced and paying both alimony and a mortgage payment on a house he didn’t live in, but I couldn’t say if that house was in this neighborhood or even in this city.

I didn’t know where he worked or where he lived. I didn’t even know how he got to the games. Nobody ever saw him behind the wheel of a car, and the nearest subway stop is at least a mile north of the club. And let’s just say a chauffeur would stick out like a sore thumb in this neighborhood.

Parker was a quiet guy, kind of scrawny. He never said much while playing. It was probably a month before I learned his first name was Joe. He just sat at the table and fidgeted with that little jade dragon he always used as a token.

Most guys who use a token just set it on their pocket cards and leave it be, but Parker was always turning it this way and that. I heard someone ask him about it once. He said it was magic and could see what cards everyone was holding. Only time I ever heard him crack a joke.

Understand, these were all small stake games we was playing: $20 buy-in with blinds of a quarter and fifty cents. Nobody was going to get rich, but nobody ever lost too much, either. Well, except for the occasional Krolikowski type of player. But Parker, he’d almost always finish the night ahead, and when he didn’t, he broke even. He never won a lot, mind you, but he’d usually go home sixty to eighty bucks ahead.

Now, I’m not saying he was a card shark, just a good solid player. He never bluffed that I knew of, but boy, you didn’t want to try and run him off a hand unless your cards were monsters. He could really read people. He could smell a bluff a mile away.

So yeah, I was there that night. I was playing in that hand although I folded before the trouble started. Parker took Kelly for about $100, big stuff for our little nickel-and-dime games. Man, I thought Kelly was going to have a stroke. There was a decent sized pot already and, when the river card came down, it left both straight and flush possibilities on the table.

A guy we called “Tank” was first to act. He opened with a pretty good-sized bet. Parker thought on it a bit, fiddled with that token, and called. Kelly was last to bet, and he quickly shoved his chips all in. Tank, figuring his hand was beat, folded like a cheap suitcase.

Parker, though, he asked for a chip count and sat there, cool as a cucumber, while Kelly counted out a little over $90, as I remember it. Anyway, Parker had him covered, but just barely. When he called the bet, Kelly turned green and showed a pair of sixes. Parker turned over two pair and raked in the pot.

Well, Kelly had had a few beers and, what with that Irish temper and all, he just went nuts. You could see there was more than a bit of that high-school bully still inside him. He really got in Parker’s face, yelling and swearing and going on about, “How the hell do you make that call with straight and flush hands in play!”

Truth be told, I think we were all a bit amazed, but hey, that’s poker and, you know, none of us really liked Kelly all that much anyway. Tank and me, we finally stood up and kind of got between them and told Kelly to cool off. That’s when he flipped his chair over in disgust and stormed out.

The rest of us played a few more hands, but the zing had gone out of the game, and we broke up early. As an officer of the club, I had to wait for everyone to leave so I could lock up.

Parker stayed to help clean up. He didn’t say much until we were out the door. When I turned around to put the key in the lock, he said, “Stan, thanks for the help with Kelly back there. I really thought he was going to hit me.”

I turned back and looked Parker in the eye. “No problem. I gotta tell you, though, that was one ballsy call. How the hell did you know Kelly was bluffing? You gotta teach me how to read players like that.”

Parker held my gaze for a minute and then reached into his pocket and took out that silly totem. He tossed it in the air a couple of times before he replied. “Get yourself a magic dragon that can see everyone’s cards. It’s a pretty simple game when you know what you’re up against.” He winked at me and walked down the steps, turning out the collar of his coat against the cold.

I was laughing out loud as I turned back to the door. The lock was old and I always had to jiggle the key around to get it in. So it took a minute and by the time I turned back and started down the steps, Parker was gone.

That’s the story I told the police; that I never saw Parker again after that. The truth is I did see him one more time. But the whole truth is that I couldn’t tell anyone what happened next, not without them calling for the men in the white jackets.

I got down the first step when I heard a shout in the alley. It wasn’t the direction I was going, but I went to check it out. I figured it was kids messing around and I wanted to scare them off. We’d had a few windows broken in the club and didn’t need any more.

I got down the sidewalk to just where the alley starts when the gun went off. I froze. To this day I don’t know what gave me the courage to stick my head around the corner.

In the glow of the streetlight, I could see Parker lying on the ground in the middle of the alley. Blood was oozing from his thigh. And I could see Kelly standing with his back to the club, waving a pistol around, shouting, “Just gimme my damn money.”

Parker held one hand out like he could stop another bullet if it came. He reached into his pocket with the other hand, but it wasn’t a wallet he pulled out. It was that dragon, and in one smooth motion he pointed it at Kelly and shouted a single word, Incendiu.

You won’t believe the next part. Hell, after all these years I’m not sure I believe it. That little dragon’s mouth opened and a blast of white fire shot out. Within seconds Kelly fell to the ground, completely engulfed in flame. The fire spread rapidly, racing up the side of the club.

I must have gasped loud enough for Parker to hear, ’cause he turned toward me, pointing that demon dragon. I would have run, but it was as if my boots had sunk into the concrete. I remember holding my hands out toward him.

When he saw it was me, he stopped, like he was unsure of what to do. Then he nodded once and pushed himself up off the ground. I watched, stunned, as he hobbled a few steps towards where the alley comes out on Front Street.

He stopped and looked back at me one last time. I think he might of winked at me again, but he was too far away for me to say for sure. Then he raised his arm, pointed that dragon up above his head and, I swear on my sainted mother’s grave, he just disappeared.

So that’s what really happened. Believe it or not. Me? Once Parker was gone, I turned the other way and ran like hell. I know. I should’ve stayed. I should’ve called it in. I should’ve told the police. But they wouldn’t’ve believed me any more than you do and, hey, like I said, none of us really liked Kelly anyway.

Copyright © 2016 by Simon Hole

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