Authors: Ray Banks
who can separate the past from the lies.
Published by Blasted Heath, 2013
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission of the author.
Ray Banks has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
All the characters in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Cover photo: Ljupco Smokovski/Shutterstock.com
Cover design by JT Lindroos
Visit Ray Banks at:
ISBN (ePub): 978-1-908688-40-8
Once upon a time, there was a lovely little forest, and in this lovely little forest lived an orphaned bunny and an orphaned snake. By a surprising yet not terribly plausible coincidence, both creatures were blind from birth.
One fine day the bunny was hopping merrily through the forest, singing a happy little song to himself, when he stumbled over the snake, who'd been slithering just as merrily through the undergrowth.
"Oh me, oh my," said the bunny. "Oh, my giddy aunt and all my dizzy cousins, I do beg your pardon, sir. I'm afraid I didn't see you. I'm a blind orphan, you see."
"Gosh, really?" said the snake. "What a surprising yet not terribly plausible coincidence! I too am a blind orphan!"
"Oh, isn't it terrible?" said the bunny.
"Positively frightful," said the snake.
"Why, I don't even know what I am!" said the bunny.
"Neither do I," said the snake. "Tell you what, let me slither all over you, and I'll try to work out what you are."
"That would be wonderful of you," said the bunny.
So the snake slithered all over the bunny, touching every inch of him, and when he was finished, he said, "Okay, well, you're covered in fur, you have really long, floppy ears, a twitchy nose and a soft, cottony tail. Now I'm no David Attenborough, but given my limited knowledge of the local fauna, I'd say you were a sweet little bunny."
"A bunny! Of course! Oh thank you, thank you!" exclaimed the bunny, clearly excited. "But wait, you're an orphan too, aren't you? Let me feel you all over with my sweet little bunny paws and I'll tell you what you are."
"Much obliged, squire."
So the bunny felt the snake all over with his sweet little bunny paws, and when he was finished, he hopped back and put one sweet little bunny paw to his sweet little bunny chin.
"Hmmm," he said.
"Well?" asked the snake.
"Well, it's difficult to tell. You appear to be smooth and slippery, you have a forked tongue, no backbone and no balls."
"Ah shit," said the snake. "I'm a fucking pit boss."
Old casino joke
Failure looked like an Ordsall trading estate on a dishrag Tuesday morning. Failure looked like the Salford Riverside.
I just hoped that failure – much like the itching, burning sensation that gnawed at the palm of my left hand – was a temporary state of affairs.
The Riverside was supposed to be the organisation's flagship club, the jewel in Sovereign's crown, but with its orange brick façade and blue neon sign the place looked more like a Staples-turned-brothel than a gaming establishment. It wasn't exactly by a river's side, either. The closest thing to water was one of the drainage routes for the Manchester Ship Canal, and that water combined with a nearby KFC gave the place a smell that could only be described as mildewed, half-cooked chicken carcass.
Hardly Monte Carlo in the springtime.
The club wasn't open yet, but I'd piqued the Security's interest with my approach, so he was already halfway to the door by the time I knocked. He opened up. When I told him who I was, he bunched a military-looking moustache. For a moment, I thought I saw something like pity in his eyes, but as soon as I caught a whiff of his breath, I realised it was a hangover.
He let me in, breathing toxic, yeasty fumes as he spoke. "Graham Ellis to see Jacqui."
The receptionist nodded and buzzed through. She motioned for me to take a seat. I did. The chair was dark blue and chrome, and about as comfortable as constipation.
"She'll be through in a minute." The receptionist smiled at me. Her teeth were small, bleached and crooked. "Where is it you're transferring from?"
I plucked at the crease on my left trouser leg. "The Palace."
"Ooh, that's a lovely club, that."
I nodded, and scratched my palm. It was. Traditionally sophisticated, with experienced and knowledgeable staff, the Palace was comfortable and professional – everything this place wasn't. Nobody worked at the Riverside by choice. Behind every new face was the rock-bottom decision to start again in a new city and behind every transfer was at least one terrible night on the tables. My night had been so utterly horrific you couldn't describe it accurately without an extensive vocabulary of what Simon Bates used to call "sexual swear words". And my mother brought me up better than that.
The buzz came back, the receptionist pressed a pedal and Sergeant Security led the way into the factory that masqueraded as the gaming floor.
The inside of the Riverside wasn't much better than its façade. Wall-to-wall blue carpet, more chrome, purple walls – the colours of a branding decision made at three in the morning and now too expensive to change. There were chippers on every table, displays mounted behind the roulette wheels to show the last number spun. More displays on the card tables to go with the shuffling machines, a six-deck capacity on the blackjack, a single on the CSP. With all this technical assistance, I wondered what the dealers actually did apart from stand there and look pretty.
A large, open-plan restaurant area took up the left-hand side of the club and bled into a bar that catered to the Wetherspoons drinker with the usual array of bottled beer, wine and branded spirits. For the more ambitious, a leftover cocktail menu in embossed purple plastic lay on the bar top and promised drinks that sounded like molestation. The seating that littered the areas in between was modelled in the same airport lounge chic as the rest of the place. On the other side of the pit, elevated and packed with cheap, beech-coloured furniture, was what I took to be the card room, home to regular poker comps and the odd Kalookie night. Behind me, a bank of slots looked dusty. I wasn't surprised. Why should punters bother with a fifty-pence slot when there were twenty-five pence roulettes?
Sergeant Security kept one beady, bloodshot eye on me as I went into the pit to investigate further. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again and put a hand to his head. Two thoughts in quick succession could hurt a man if he wasn't used to it.
There was a monitor on the pit desk, a small console underneath. Those little black boxes represented the only tangible improvement to the standard procedure. When we needed a camera check at the Palace, we had to trundle off to the camera room, which normally meant a good five-ten minute delay. And while that was going on, while you were fiddling with a jog shuttle trying to find the exact moment the game went to hell, you had a slow wheel out in the pit, which was a potentially expensive state of affairs. With this monitor, a camera check could be done at the pit desk and sorted within a minute or two. No muss, no fuss. At first glance, it was a good idea. It made camera checks convenient. But then the problem with making something convenient was that people tended to rely on it. A punter was more likely to wave off a check when he knew it was going to cripple the game – other punters would complain, the ball would go cold, the dealer wouldn't be in any hurry to speed it up again – and so checks at the Palace were a last resort. Here, I wouldn't be surprised if the inspectors called for camera checks as often as they called for fills.
And now I came to think of it, there was something else different about this pit, something missing.
"No inspector chairs."
Jacqui Prince. She was slender, dark-haired, blue-eyed. Some people might have described her as handsome. The word that sprang to my mind was sleek.
"That's it. I knew there was something." I shook the offered hand, held my left behind my back. It may have made me look unusually formal, but it also kept the rash on my hand out of sight. Her hand was warm and delicate. "Any reason behind it?"
"They're more likely to stay awake if they're on their feet." Her smile showed even teeth. "Very pleased to meet you, Graham. I've heard a lot about you."
She nodded. "He can't praise you enough."
I smiled and looked at the floor. My clothes felt tight. "No, I bet he can't."
"Really, he told me he doesn't know how he's going to manage without you." She gestured at me to follow as she headed for the pit rope. "You're the backbone of the Palace, apparently."
I smiled, followed, made a non-committal noise. I hoped it sounded friendly.
Jacqui led me over to the shuttered cash desk. She stopped at a door marked STAFF ONLY, where she hit the corner numbers on a keypad then pushed through into a blue-walled corridor. She turned and rapped on another door. It sounded solid and opened to reveal a dumpy Tintin lookalike, who smiled at her and cocked his head at me. "This is Douglas, our head cashier. Douglas, this is Graham Ellis. He's going to be covering Paul Barlow's paternity leave."
"Ah, right." Tintin offered his limp paw. It felt like a spoiled peach in my hand; I held it for a second and let it go. He noticed my discomfort and blinked at me – took a mental snapshot and tagged it "homophobe". I wasn't, but I wasn't going to play too nice, either. I wouldn't be here long enough for his superficial enmity to become a problem.
We both stood there trying not to make eye contact as Jacqui prattled on about the cash desk procedures. Then Jacqui and I said goodbye to Tintin and went to her office, where she finished off what had become a laborious and entirely unnecessary induction. It didn't matter, did it? I mean, I was going to be working at the Riverside for a fortnight tops, right?
When I interrupted her spiel to confirm that mine was a temporary transfer, she shrugged. "I'll be honest with you, Graham, I'm not entirely sure how long you're going to be with us."
I scratched my palm. "That's interesting. You see, I was told two weeks."
"That's how long paternity leave is."
"I know that, too." She smiled. "But there's holiday time to consider."
"I wasn't aware that he'd booked annual leave."