It was all the talk at Rex King’s Bar. Carlotta Bucks, president of the Purity Food Corporation, had finally kicked the bucket. I’d like to be bighearted and say I was sorry about it, but the truth is, her company makes Peaceable Kingdom All-Vegetarian Pet Food. The couple of times Barlowe fed that stuff to me I wished a fate worse than death to Carlotta Bucks.
Barlowe, by the way, is Philip Barlowe, famous detective. And I, in case you haven’t figured it out, am Samantha Spayed, his all-too-loyal canine sidekick and the brains behind this duo. Although you’d never know that if you read the newspaper accounts of our cases. They always make it seem that Barlowe has done the work himself. During our last case I’d resolved to let Barlowe do just that, but he almost got us in the soup, so I had to step in. So much for letting him go solo.
To get back to Carlotta Bucks, crummy as the pet food is, her company raked in a lot of money over the twenty-two years she was its president. But it was what Carlotta had done with that dough that the real excitement was all about. In her will, Carlotta Bucks had specified that she was leaving her money to none other than Snoogums, her “dearly beloved” cat. There was talk that she had a nephew, a gambler, who’d contested the will, but without success.
“Twenty million smackolas to a cat,” said my pal and sometime employee Harry as we sat in our favorite dark corner of Rex King’s Bar. As usual I was waiting for Barlowe. “What do you make of it, Sam?”
I stared gloomily into the bowl of popcorn Barlowe had set down in front of me. “Not much,” I lied. The truth is I was pretty depressed. There I was, in a dingy bar with a bowl of stale popcorn, which might be the last meal I’d be having for a long time if the detective business didn’t pick up for me and Barlowe soon, while some overstuffed cat was sleeping on silk cushions and dining on smoked salmon.
“I’ll tell you what I think,” Harry said philosophically. “I think the world is made up of the haves and the have-nots, and right now you and I are in the latter category. Which stinks. But our luck could change any minute, so I’m not gonna let it get me down. And neither should you, Sam.”
I didn’t bother to tell him I was already down. So down, in fact, that this time I didn’t even care whether or not I got the credit on Barlowe’s and my next case just so long as there was a next case.
“Come on, Sam. Time to go,” called Barlowe, sliding off his bar stool across the room.
I got up slowly. “Thanks for the pep talk, Harry,” I said.
“Yeah. Well, keep me in mind if anything starts shaking.”
“Will do,” I answered. But I couldn’t help thinking the only things that would soon be shaking would be Barlowe and me when our landlord booted us out in the cold for not paying the rent.
“Raise or call, Barlowe?” asked Fat Bernie.
“Sloof!” I barked, meaning “Call,” but I knew it wouldn’t do any good. I’ve never understood why whenever we’re broke, Barlowe goes out of his way to make us even broker. Or why one of his favorite ways to land us in the poorhouse is poker, a game he has neither the luck nor the smarts to play well.
“You’re bluffing, Bernie,” said Barlowe. “I raise.”
I let out a pitiful whine, shut my eyes, and wished once again we’d gone home from Rex King’s instead of straight to Fat Bernie’s Poker Parlor, which wasn’t a parlor at all but the grimy office of a crumbling parking garage in a lousy part of town.
“Okay, Barlowe, I’ll see you,” said Fat Bernie, matching Barlowe’s chips.
“I fold,” said Pumper Pete, one of the regulars. He threw down his cards.
“Me too,” skinny Gladys Mernicki, another regular chimed in.
The third regular, Silent George, just put his hand down without a word.
“Well, Barlowe, that leaves you and me for the showdown. What have you got?” said Fat Bernie.
There was a pause, and then I heard Barlowe say, “Three kings.”
I opened my eyes. I’d been to Fat Bernie’s often enough to know a decent hand when I heard one. I looked longingly at the chips, which represented a month’s worth of lamb chops.
“Okay, Bernie. Let’s see you beat that,” Barlowe said.
Fat Bernie didn’t crack a smile. He lay down his cards, but kept his big palm over them. “How about…three aces,” he said, removing his hand.
Barlowe and I both groaned as Fat Bernie raked in the chips.
“I think I better qu-” Barlowe had started to say when we heard footsteps.
I jumped up from the corner where I’d been sitting to do my dog bit as a thin guy in a fancy suit with a newspaper until his arm appeared in the doorway. “Gentlemen–and lady–is this game closed, or can anyone join in?”
There was silence while everyone gave him the once-over. I trotted up to him for a sniff.
“Depends on who that anyone is,” Fat Bernie finally said.
The man grinned. One of his teeth flashed brighter than the others, and I guessed it was solid gold. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a wad of dough.
“Welcome, Anyone,” said Fat Bernie.
The man grinned again and brushed past me to take a seat at the table. I didn’t mind. I was finished checking him out, although I hadn’t learned much. The guy wasn’t wearing any cologne or after-shave, and his own smell wasn’t particularly interesting. But something made me want to keep my eye on him. Something I call a Hunch.
“What’s your name?” Fat Bernie said.
The man laid the newspaper under his chair and flashed his tooth a third time. “You can call me…Hy Stakes,” he said.
“Okay, Hy. Since you’re a newcomer here, we’ll let you choose any game you want–as long as it’s poker.”
“That’s a mighty friendly gesture,” Hy said. “All right, then, I choose Anaconda Seven-Card Stud.”
“Anaconda, huh?” said Fat Bernie, sounding none too pleased.
“Count me out,” said Gladys. “I gotta get home and feed the old man.”
“Are you gentlemen still playing?” asked Stakes.
“I’m in,” said Pumper Pete.
Silent George nodded.
Say no, Barlowe, I thought. Say no.
“Yes,” he answered.
I groaned again and sank back down into my corner.
This game was different than the other poker games they usually played. There was a lot more movement and a lot more betting. The players kept passing cards to their neighbors and tossing chips in the pot. I could Hy Stakes was really enjoying himself. He sat there relaxed, one hand holding his cards, the other resting under the table in his lap.
Barlowe, on the other hand, wasn’t enjoying himself at all. In fact he looked like he does when he’s visiting the dentist. I watched his small stack of chips get even smaller and contemplated getting up and going so I wouldn’t have to see my last chance at a square meal go down the drain. Then all of a sudden I noticed a faint waxy smell. I looked around to see if anyone else had noticed it, but they were all too busy passing their cards. I took another sniff. It was still there, and now I could tell where it was coming from: Hy Stakes. At first I couldn’t see anything. Then as I watched, I saw him dip the fingers of his free hand into a little container resting in his lap. Next he casually brought them up and touched them to the back of his cards.
Now, the finer points of poker may escape me, but there’s one thing I can recognize no matter what the game, and that’s a cheat.
I waited for the right moment. Barlowe had just pushed the last of his chips into the pile in the center of the table. Fat Bernie, giving a repeat performance, was asking what he had.
“Straight,” said Barlowe. “You?”
Fat Bernie let out a sigh. “Two pairs.”
They both turned to Hy Stakes. He smiled again. “Royal flush,” he said. He reached for the chips just as I reached for him. “What the–” he said, nearly falling out of his chair.
I growled, stuck my nose in his lap, and before he knew what was happening, grabbed the little container he held there. Then I deposited it in Barlowe’s hand.
He held it up. “What’s this, Sam?”
“Let me see that,” said Fat Bernie. “Hey, that’s daub. This guy’s been marking the cards!”
“Why you–” Barlowe stood up.
Hy Stakes backed away. I let out a growl to tell him he wasn’t going very far.
“Get him, Barlowe!” yelled Pumper Pete.
Then a strange thing happened. Stakes sat back down in his chair and started to laugh. “So it’s true. You’re as good as she said you were.”
I could tell Barlowe was confused. To tell you the truth, so was I. I sat down too. Stakes reached out and shoved all the chips across the table toward Barlowe’s chair. “Here’s the advance on your fee.”
“Hey, that’s my money,” said Fat Bernie.
Barlowe ignored him and said to Hy Stakes, “Huh? My fee? What are you talking about?”
I perked up, my Hunch buzzing like an alarm clock in my brain again.
“I’m hiring you, Mr. Barlowe,” Stakes said.
“Hiring me? To do what?”
I knew the answer before Hy Stakes could flash his gold tooth again. “To find my aunt’s real will,” he said.
I jumped to my feet, ready for action. But Barlowe still hadn’t caught on. “And just who is this aunt of yours?” he asked, not moving from his chair.
Stakes gave a little snort that suggested he was beginning to wonder if he’d made a mistake. It didn’t seem that Barlowe would be able to find his way home, let alone a vanished will. With a whine I grabbed the newspaper from under Stakes’ chair and nearly threw it in Barlowe’s lap.
He glanced down at it. “What is this, Sam? I already read the paper. It’s all full of stuff about that Carlotta Bucks dame and her will…” Then I saw his face change. He looked up. “Your aunt…”
“You got it, Mr. Barlowe,” said Hy Stakes. “Carlotta Bucks, of course.”