A Parliament of Rooks (Short Story / Historical Fiction)

You win some, you lose some. That’s what they always say. Then again when you lose enough games you often wonder if you’ll ever win again.

A black curtain of night hung ragged above with pin-pricked holes of light blazing strong enough to ride the dark waves below. Without a moon, the sea was infinite and cold. Breath froze just as it escaped any living being foolish enough to be outside at this hour. Victor was one such fool.

“Victor!” a shout rang out then died quickly on the wind as it sprang from Danton, a rosy-cheeked banker in a buttoned up suit who swung intoxicatedly out onto the top deck of the massive steamship, the icy floorboards nearly tumbling him. Sounds of joyous chatter and warmth emanated from the ballroom within. “You’ll catch your death of cold out here.”

“My jacket seems to have developed a hole for the wind to find me," Victor chuckled as he poked his finger through the torn breast of his coat. Apart from the holey jacket, he was dressed head to toe in only the finest threads. "Have you an extra coat?”

“I can do you one better.”

Danton hoisted a snifter of brandy he had been concealing behind his back and offered it with a grandiose embellishment. Victor grinned broadly as the smell of liquor warmed his lungs.

“You’re a saint.”

“No, no, I’m just a disciple," Danton chuckled. "Whomever packed this brandy away for the voyage is a saint,”

The two clinked glass and enjoyed their drinks hastily. Victor turned up his collar against the cold, shooting his cuffs to gain any extra bit of warmth his suit would afford him. The ship yawed South into headwinds that bit straight through him, chilling his marrow to frost, as white dots appeared on the horizon.

“Did you try that Columbiana coffee or whathaveyou they were calling it? I heard they hauled the beans all the way from South America to Britain just so we could sail back across drinking them!” exclaimed Danton.

“You don’t say.”

“I do say. I’ve been saying it all along. This is the best damned ship that’s ever sailed. To hell with hotels! I’ll take this done-up dinghy any day!" Danton paced as he spoke, his hand running along the polished brass railing. "Did you see the china? It’s Chinese china, not some homespun claypot from Mongolia. I’ve been thinking about asking the captain where I might be able to find some for my own dining set when we arrive. Can’t have enough flatware, I always say.”

“Do you?”

“I do,” Danton’s eyes snapped wide as he became excitable, “and five pounds say the next iceberg we pass does so on our left.”

Victor's gaze swung from his inebriated companion who leaned heavily against the railing, whether to steady himself from the ship’s rises or to steady himself from the ship’s brandy, to several pale forms of ice floating far in the distance. Icebergs, dozens of them, speeding slowly towards the bow. He held his top hat firmly against his head as a gust of wind threatened to steal it for the sky.

“I see your five pounds, and raise you another one of these,” Victor's voice muffled within the curve of his glass as he sipped, “because if we’re out here another minute I’m liable to become the world’s first living icicle.”

“We’ll see, old chum, we’ll see," Danton beamed, throwing an arm around Victor. "Here it comes now! I can almost spy it! Would you like to double down?”

“I’m content with my bet,” said Victor cooly.

“That’s your problem, Victor, always afraid to-"

“Ante up. This is your last chance, Vic.”

“I’m content with my bet,” Vic echoed himself.

“Suit yourself,” spat McKillick, not into a spittoon but straight onto the floor. It was that kind of place; decrepit, odorous, and leaning precariously.  Too cold even to open the windows a crack to let out the smoke from the flickering kerosone lamp. The shack's survival of another winter would be a miracle of Biblical proportions. During the day, dockworkers used it to store broken down tools and stolen cargo. At night they used it to divvy up said stolen cargo, and bet it against one another in poker.

To Vic, the shack was more home to him than home, for his real home was a small, bed-filled closet by the trainyard that rumbled daily and nightly from the passing locomotive. The force of which caused him to become a powerfully heavy sleeper. The fumes of which caused him to have a terrible coal-induced cough that he could never seem to kick.

Vic leaned forward onto the table, sleeves rolled, his tattered old jacket hanging tattered behind from his chair as pondering over his current hand. The other players, anxious of the game's pause, shot glances at their cards nervously. In order of unsavoriness they were: Teen, a smallpoxed kid of no more than ten whose facial scars made it look like he already had an intense bout of pubescent acne, Batu Gan, an ironworker of northern Oriental descent who claimed to be the offspring of Attila the Hun, and Lachlan, a thick headed, tongued and bearded Scot who was only working the docks because there wasn't a war on.

Victor fanned his cards, then compacted them together. He had nothing.

"I've got nothing," Vic stated blankly. McKillik coughed in disgust.

"That's another one of your problems: you're too honest. Never tell the truth. At least not in poker, and every other time it's optional at best," McKillik declared as the Scot chuckled and snorted some winter phlegm.

"Honesty being the best policy is great and all, for Christians maybe, but then again look where it got Jesus. Up on a cross and stabbed. If he had told those Romans he was just a wandering carpenter or even the King of Siam they probably would have believed him. Let him go. And he wouldn't be up on a cross and stabbed."

"What the hell does that have to do with poker?" said Vic through furrowed brows. He cast sidelong glances at the other players hoping to get an understanding headnod or the like out of them, but they all had a week's salary resting on the game and laughter was out of the question. Everyone knows a laugh means you have a bad hand.

"Come on, Vic, keep up!" McKillik shouted, banging his fist on the table causing everyone's towering chips to tumble. Well, some had towering chips, but Vic's was more like a modest, one story house.

"All I'm saying is if you wanna win, sometimes having the strongest hand you need to seem weak, and if you have the weakest hand you need to seem strong."

"Or else I'll end up on a cross and stabbed?" Victor guessed.

"Damnit, no! You'll lose every penny. Weren't you listening at all?" Vic nodded yes, but McKillik remained unconvinced. "It's like this: poor people wear caps, rich people wear hats. What're you wearing?"

"A cap."

"That's how I know you're poor," McKillik smirked. "I can read you like a book."

"If you knew how to read," Teen fired back in his squeaky voice.

"Cheeky little devil, aren't you?" McKillik's jowels clacking as he laughed. "Alright, enough of this blather, any more bets, you cheapskates?"

A few more chips fell into the pot, except from Teen who pushed everything he had onto the stack. All eyes locked to the cocky kid and then to the other opponents. It was a flitting tennis match of the eyes. Batu Gan laid his cards down, silently folding.

"How about you, Vic?" slurred Lachlan.

Vic rocked side to side in his chair, feeling the flimsy billfold that he carried in his back pocket more for show than actually carrying any bills, and noticed a bit of pressure. His pocketwatch. He dropped it carefully on the table, coiling the worn brass chain delicately on top.

"This is all I've got," Vic said softly.

McKillik whistled through his teeth, "And it'll go wonderfully with the coat I'm about to win off Lachlan's back."

"Come and get it," Lachlan raised his battered fists, like two craggy mountains. Thankfully, McKillick was sitting pretty out of arm's reach.

"Easy boy, this isn't like your stinking peatbogs back home where you sheep-fornicators settle your wares with fisticuffs! We're gentlemen," McKillik hocked and spit onto the floor again, "we settle things fairly… with cards."

McKillik flipped the last card on the table. An ace of diamonds.

The side of Batu Gan's mouth jerked, as if caught on a hook, almost imperceptibly, but to anyone who knew the man, that was a sign of pure fury. He would have had a full house.

Lachlan had three of a kind.

Teen had nothing, the biggest bluffer of the lot. Angrily, he slammed his cap onto the floor then got up and kicked it as far as his skinny legs could muster.

Vic showed his cards.

"Not bad, my boy, you weren't lying when you said you had nothin'… until the last card gave you a flush. You never know when your luck is gonna change," McKillik said as Vic's mood lightened considerably. "Unfortunately, that isn't tonight."

McKillik revealed his cards: straight flush.

"Sorry, Vic," McKillik scooped his burly arms around the stash of chips and pocketwatch, pulling the bounty towards him. "It wasn't in the cards tonight, maybe next-"

"Hand me a drink, will you? And hand yourself one too, I've got this round," called Danton above the strings of the nearby orchestra pit. To warm up the ballroom patrons, the conductor had switched them from waltzes to polkas to riveting arpeggios, hoping the increased tempo would improve circulation as well. The ship was a wonder of modern mechanics and mercifully kept the frigid polar frost from penetrating the floating establishment. In the water outside, a full grown man would perish in minutes, but inside, the light, liquor and love kept hearts content.

It was a night to celebrate. Not only due to the aforementioned comfort in such normally adverse conditions, but also in a few days the ship would be making landfall in the Americas. For many, the Atlantic crossing was old-hat, but for many more they had only heard tales of the prosperous west and the New York City that stood as the mighty welcome mat to the door of hope. But most of all they had heard of its baseball team.

The song ended with a brush of strings and every gentleman and lady on the floor clapped their thanks, bowing politely. Within moments the strings rose and the floor was once again filled with the happy stepping of couples spinning their fancy dance. Victor, never one to turn down a free drink, was not one of them.

“I do believe,” Danton paused to finish his scotch in one drawn-out, glass tipping finale, “I am all done drinking for the evening. Which means it is time to begin smoking. Shall we?”

"Here?" Victor asked in confusion.

"No, no! Not here you blighter. Haven't you ever been to a smoking room before or were you raised in a burrow?" Danton stood, hands on hips, in mock-contempt.

"Ah yes, of course," Victor fumbled, "I just didn't realize there would be one aboard."

Danton waved him offnonchalatantly and pushed through to the downward stairwell. The door slammed shut on Victor's scuffed old workboats, keeping it propped open. He pushed gingerly into the stairwell and followed his compatriot.

"Hurry along," Danton's reverberant voice echoed, "I know a Cuban whom I’d like to introduce you to.”

"Señor Partagás, I'd like you to meet my friend Victor. Victor, meet Señor Partagás. He's short, fat and quite hot-headed," Danton took a match to the tip of a hand-wrapped Cuban Partagás cigar and puffed away vigorously, the embers flashing orange with each draw. He let out a breath of thick smoke, inhaling it back in with a glossed smile. "Hot-headed, you see!"

Danton handed Victor a cigar which he looked over with great fascination, taking his time as he clipped the end, and savored every moment of the fine, imported smokable.

"This is what God himself would smoke," Victor mused, content.

"This is what God himself does smoke," Danton corrected, waving out his match. "And there will be plenty more like that when we reach the city. It's only a short steam to Havana, perhaps we'll find passage down there together? It'd be a pity to stop the escapade so soon… we've only just begun!"

Victor propped his elbows lazily against the mantle, his back warmed by the crackling fire as cigar smoke twirled upwards and collected into a lingering dark cloud. The smoking room, the first Victor had ever seen, was filled with antiquities and opulence from the globe at large and looked as if it were the eighth wonder of the world. Everywhere he saw smiles. Smiles of men for whom leisure was the foremost activity in their lives.

"Let's have a game, shall we?" Danton chimed, tapping his cigar over a rapidly filling tray.

"I'm not much for games."

"Come now! Victor is a winning name. I bet you have all the-"

"Luck. No matter how well you play the game, sometimes it just comes down to luck," boomed McKillick as the wooden door clacked hard against a broken frame as they stepped out into the bitter evening. From outside on the docks, the worker's shack seemed to lean even further than before, laughing in the face of physics. McKillik stood full tall in a stretch, his belly extended and testing the elastic merit of his suspenders. "And sometimes when your luck has run out, you just need to change tables, even if you're playing the same game."

"I don't believe I'll be playing this game again for a while," Vic scoffed.

McKillik huffed warmly onto the face of the pocket watch, cleaning the finger-greased glass with the cuff of his sleeve. He held it to his ear, eyes closed, enjoying the precision clicks of time he now owned. Slipping the pocketwatch back in his jacket, he whistled a soft diddy and padded off down the cobblestone.

"At least you kept your cap," McKillik waved to no one in particular as he disappeared into the harbor fog to the soft sounds of tankers straining against their mooring lines.

"If I'm late to work tomorrow you'll know why!" Vic shouted after him but only the low vibrations of a far off ship's horn returned. It was late, though without his pocket watch he'd never know just how much.

Home was north, and this way was north, or so the half dozen drinks he had that evening were telling him. Vic walked slowly, arms tucked tightly into his pockets from the cold. Though he should have rushed home to get out of the drear, Vic loved this time of night. No matter how terrible the day before had been, or how difficult the day to come would be, when everyone else was sleeping he was allowed a window of limbo where nothing could touch him. No one to bother him. No one for him to bother. He was free.

A single flake of snow drifted lazily down, past the clouds, the cranes, the ships, and onto the brim of Vic's cap.

"Hey!"

The lone voice cut through the night. Vic froze. Brakes squealed. More shouting. Two, perhaps three men. An inebriated argument. Vic quietly crept up behind the shelter of a dock crane and peered onto the street. In the warm glow of a gaslamp's halo, a lavishly coated man in a top hat, white scarf, and polished shoes, slowly backpedaled away from two men, one carrying a crowbar, the other an old war pistol. In the quiet that snow brings, the hammer click was deafening.

"Please, no!" the top-hatted man called. "I have a wife… children. Please, this watch, my automobile is yours, every pound in my wallet, you don't have to do this, please, just let me-"

The night shattered. The top-hatted man fell. A flock of crows took flight. The two men, almost still boys, were so startled by the sound that they fled without taking a single thing.

Vic listened for a siren, looked for light from a cracked window, but none came. To all those warm and safe in their houses, the shot was hardly heard, and if it was, ignored by those thankful they weren't close enough to hear it louder.

The man's eyes were wide open, locked on distant infinity. His chest rose and fell haltingly. Too shallow and quick. Too pale even in this cold weather.

"Please," the top-hatted man said, his fingers reaching, scratching the ground for something, "please. I believe my hat has fallen off."

A final "please" escaped with his soul. Fluttering, his eyes closed gently as snow, unable to melt on his cold face, began piling up. Vic stood still for what seemed to him eternity, letting the wind push him like a buoy. Finally, he approached and kneeled beside the expired man. In this state, done in formal attire, his bald head resting perfectly still upon the ground, the man seemed at peace.

Such a nice coat, Vic thought, as he shivered in his own thin canvas. After a quick look around, he carefully removed the rotund man's coat and wore it over his own. For the first time, he noticed a clean, bullet-made hole through the breast pocket, and a glint of leather within. Inside, he found a wallet containing precisely three hundred dollars and a ticket for a steamship, due to leave in only a few hours. Vic shouldered the coat against the cold, stuffed the wallet into his pocket, took one last look at the man, his face now almost entirely obscured by fallen snow, and made his way down to the water's edge.

He lifted his cap, weathered and coarse, remembering every tear and re-stitched seam, and turned it over in his hands. With a long draw he flung the cap into the bay, the thin material soaking and sinking instantly. The breeze shook his tangle of dark curls, which he hurriedly swooped flat backwards against his scalp. A skittering startled him and he turned to find the man's tophat rolling along and settling to a stop at his feet.

As he picked it up, he felt every moment before slip away. He carefully placed the hat on his head and made fresh footprints in the snow, soon erased and forgotten.

"I'm so-"

"Sorry, but I'm going to have to have to see your bet, and raise you three hundred dollars," Victor laid the fresh bills onto the stack of chips and pushed them into the pile. By now, a large crowd had formed, and quieted, around the poker table as the game narrowed to two men.

Danton and Victor.

"You know, I was thinking about buying a new yacht for my wife's birthday this spring," Danton said solemnly, then quickly slid his entire stack of chips forward, matching the bet, "but perhaps she can wait."

The old men chuckled. Victor stole a glance at his cards. He had something. More than something. A royal flush. He was about to win more money than he had ever made in his entire life. In a single night. A single hand of poker.

"Did you ever hear from Marcus?" a spindly, hooked-nose elder said with an air of concern on his face as several other drink-swirlers perked up their ears. "He did say he was going to be on this voyage, did he not?"

"He did," said another.

"It's very unlike him to say one thing and do another. Except when he has the drink, but that's an excuse we're all allowed. None of you have heard from him, have you?" the elder asked, staring straight through Victor as he did.

Victor shook his head, stiffling his tell, "I don't believe so. What does he look like?"

"Bald as a cue-ball and just as white," the elder chuckled. "And just as round!"

Victor coughed, deftly reaching into his pocket for a handkerchief and, in the process, sliding his ticket out just far enough to read the passenger name: Mr. Marcus Lowsley. The room went cold, though no one else seemed to notice. Victor's mouth moved, but he found no sound coming out.

"Are you alright?"

All eyes were on him now. None of which he knew. But he felt as if they knew.

"Yes, sorry," Victor cleared his throat and shook himself out of it. "I don't believe I've seen him before, but if I do I'll be sure to tell him you all are looking for him."

The elder's gaze lingered on Victor, perhaps seeinqg through his bluff.

"Well then, shall we see if 'to the victor' truly go the spoils?" Danton said, interrupting the elder with a broad sweep of his hands,

If he won, they would speak to him, Victor thought. And if they spoke to him, they'd ask his name. Where he was from. What he was doing here.

The wine spilled.

"My apologies!" Victor shouted as he sprang up from the table, using the coat to mop up the spreading red stain, and in the moment of panic trading a card from his hand with a card from the deck. "What a klutz I am! Still getting my sea-legs it seems!"

"Victor!" Danton's eyes went wide. "You've ruined your coat!"

"No no, I've ruined the wine!" Victor added hastily. "I do apologize."

"Never mind that… show me your cards man! I demand it! My heart can hardly take it!" Danton exclaimed excitedly, turning over his cards and revealing a king-high straight. "Beat that!"

Victor showed his cards.

"Oh thank Heavens! You almost had a royal flush!" Danton shouted, elated, as he jumped up from the table. "I suppose it's game, set and match, old chum."

The two shook hands firmly as everyone applauded the contest of wills.

"Perhaps next time, luck will be on my side," said Victor, propping up a smile.

"Luck is a myth," Danton smiled. "There is success and there is failure. We are allowed to make of each how we please."

As quickly as it had formed, the group of curious old men around the table vanished. Back to their cigars, their spirits, their talk.

"Ah, the wine," Victor said in a hurry as he headed for the door. "I'll find us an adequate replacement."

"Oh Victor," Danton chimed, taking a long draw on his cigar, "while you're out there see about our bet."

"But I've already lost," Victor replied, confused.

"The icebergs. You may still arrive a winner," Danton said with a wink.

With that, Victor nodded, smiling, folded up the wine-soaked coat, and slipped it in the trash on his way out.

The top-hat tilted and slowly sank into the darkness below the waves.