1947. An enigmatic man driving a fine Lincoln convertible and accompanied by a beautiful blonde, comes to a small West Texas town. Ostensibly, his purpose is to get into a poker game that had been going at the infamous Weilbach Hotel. But as the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that he has a darker motive, one that centers on a sinister local banker named Clifton Robillard. Aided by an old-time hood named Chicken Little, the protagonist maneuvers Robillard toward a shattering climax in which we discover that nothing is what it seems to be.
With its wildcatting spirit, Milton T. Burton's The Rogues' Game is a high stakes novel and an exquisite quest for revenge.
|Publisher:||St. Martin''s Publishing Group|
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About the Author
Milton Burton was born in Jacksonville, Texas and has worked variously as a cattleman, college teacher, and political consultant. He now lives in Tyler. The Rogues' Game is his first novel.
Milton Burton was born in Jacksonville, Texas, and has worked variously as a cattleman, college teacher, and political consultant. He now lives in Tyler. His first novel, The Rogues’ Game, was met with wide acclaim.
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The Rogues' Game
By Milton T. Burton
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2005 Milton T. Burton
All rights reserved.
It was a small city in Texas. The name doesn't matter. It's enough for you to know that it was west of the Brazos River and east of the Pecos, and if this description doesn't tell you anything, buy a map. The population hovered around fifty thousand for the first half of the century, but the war brought an airbase and the numbers soared while the local economy boomed. I'd been there for a week back in the fall of 1942 on assignment with the Office of Strategic Services, and I'd disliked the place enough that I intended to go back someday. There were complications for me when the war ended, and it was the spring of '47 before I could get my affairs in order and return. We traveled at night. It was late April, and already the thermometer was climbing into the high eighties in the daytime, but the nights were cool and the wind coming in through the open window of the car had a tart edge to it. Outside I could smell the mesquite and the sagebrush, and whenever we crossed one of the many little wet-weather creeks that cut up the land I caught the fine night odor of damp earth that means so much in that dry country.
About 10:00 P.M. I topped the last rise and saw the lights of the city on the horizon. I glanced over at my companion. She was a weary-eyed, fine-bodied blonde named Della who stood a couple of inches over five feet and carried thirty-two years to my forty-three. We'd been together for the sixteen months that had passed since that cold, snowy night just before Christmas of 1945 when I first saw her sitting at the bar of the Mallard Room in the Peabody Hotel. Back in her younger days she'd been a Memphis debutante, but between then and now lay a failed marriage and a dead child. Not that I cared that much about her past since we each had what the other needed. What I got from the arrangement was frequent access to her lush little body and the unobtrusive companionship of an intelligent woman who loved long periods of silence. What she got from me was the willingness to get up and move, a willingness born of a restless energy that kept me from staying in any one place too long. This movement gave her a fragile sense of purpose and direction that had been absent from her life for a long time, and so far she'd been content to follow me wherever I led.
The evening we left Tennessee I paid for the car at a Nashville dealership. It was a 1947 Lincoln Continental convertible, painted a soft shade of cream with upholstery of dark tan leather. It was a fast, heavy machine with a twelve-cylinder engine that ran silky smooth as I glided away from the curb.
Originally my plans hadn't included Della, and there were a thousand things that could go wrong with my project in Texas and leave her stranded. Besides, the romance might sour on its own, and I have never wanted any woman I'm with to feel compelled to stay with me for lack of other options. These thoughts had hung heavily in my mind in the hours since we'd left Memphis. Finally I pulled over to the side of the street a mile from the Mississippi River bridge at Vicksburg. I took out my money clip, extracted five one-hundred dollar bills, then handed the money to Della and started to put the car in gear. She reached over and turned off the ignition. "What's this for?" she asked.
"Traveling money," I replied. "This time we're going to be a long way from home and I don't want you to feel trapped."
"I've got plenty of my own if I need to leave," she said with one of her rare smiles.
"Then spend it on yourself. Buy some new clothes."
She shook her head. "I've got enough for that, too." She reached over and put the five bills in my shirt pocket, kissed me lightly on the ear, then went back to the book she'd been reading in the dim glow of the car's map light. That's the kind of woman she was, and she'd grown on me fast.
The next evening in Texas when I came over the rise, I took her hand in mine and gently squeezed it until she woke up. "Hi," she said in a husky voice.
I pointed to the lights of the city in the distance.
"So that's it?" she asked.
I nodded and drove on without saying anything. The place had begun as a drab collection of huts and shanties that sprang up right before the Civil War on the east bank of the Rio Diablo — the Devil's River. Most of the year there was nothing about the Diablo to justify its name. It began as a thin trickle high up on the Llano Estacado and then flowed gently southward to join the Rio Grande many miles away. But with the spring rains it could swell from its banks in a matter of hours to fill its flood plain with a mad torrent that carried away everything in its path.
In the eighty-odd years since its founding, the town had grown until now it lay sprawled on both sides of the river, its two halves connected by a half dozen viaducts. The main drag was called Roosevelt Avenue. Before the war it was known as Texas Street, but the local boosters had rechristened it in a fit of gratitude to FDR for the airbase. Its eastern extremity had always been the saloon and red-light district. Called Buckshot Row after the favorite peacekeeping tool of a legendary frontier sheriff, it amounted to a handful of hot-pillow hotels and a dozen or so nightclubs. The clubs were gaudy, jerry-built places where soldiers and cowboys drank beer and danced and sometimes fought for the attentions of local girls and hookers alike. During the war when the base was swelled to capacity each of these dives had a back room where a couple of dice tables and a roulette wheel could be found. Back then the money was rolling in, and every street corner on the Row held a few whores and at least one skinny, rat-eyed pimp from Fort Worth or Dallas or Houston. Those days were long over now, and most of the joints were struggling to survive against rumors that the base wouldn't make the latest round of War Department budget cuts.
I drove on sedately through town. Traffic was light and the few cars abroad that time of night were clustered around a couple of cafés and the old Weilbach Hotel. The ancient, flickering streetlights had been erected when the first power plant was built not long after the turn of the century, and their feeble glow left the downtown shrouded in shadows. In the center of the city loomed the county courthouse, a grim neo-Gothic castle of native sandstone, complete with gargoyles, iron-barred windows and a roof of tarnished copper plating. Beyond the courthouse the business district soon gave way to eight or ten blocks of fine homes, most of them dating back to the late Victorian era when the place had been a prosperous shipping center for the cattle industry. The majority were in good repair, but several were beginning to show the effects of time and age and the town's ebbing fortunes. Surrounded by stunted oaks and cottonwoods, they still thrust their high-pitched roofs and prim cupolas into the inhospitable West Texas sky like a gaggle of old maids flaunting their outworn virginity.
I passed them with hardly a glance, then crossed the Roosevelt Avenue Viaduct that spanned the Diablo's floodplain. So far it had been a dry spring, and the river itself was but a narrow, placid ribbon shimmering in the moonlight. On the west side of town I stopped at a liquor store and bought two-fifths of White Horse scotch and several bottles of club soda. A mile farther on I found a tourist court that advertised water fans and free ice. It was a semicircle of small stucco cabins nestled in a grove of cottonwood trees, each with a carport and a covered portico.
"If the office is clean, the rooms will be too," Della said. She came in with me, looked carefully around, and then gave the place her nod of approval. When I paid for two weeks' lodging, the night clerk grabbed at the cash like a drowning man grabs a life preserver.
"No refunds," he said. "Please understand that. No refund if you leave early."
"Don't worry," I told him. "We may even be here longer than two weeks."
He went somewhere in the back and filled a thermos jug with ice for me, then handed it over along with my key and receipt.
Besides a bathroom and a roomy bedroom with a sofa and an armchair, the cabin had a kitchenette off to one side in an alcove. I piled our luggage beside the bed and went to the sink and made us each a tall drink. I handed one to Della as she headed to the bathroom to soak, then stretched out on the sofa and took a long pull from the other, savoring the smoky taste of the whiskey.
I had no doubt that the payment of two weeks' rent would soon bring a visit from the cops. That's the way it worked back then in towns of that size. A man with a nice car and plenty of cash and a blonde with no wedding ring checked into a hotel or tourist court planning to be in town a while, and the clerk would call to report him as soon as he was out the office door. I didn't mind, though; I wanted a visit from the law because I knew just what kind of guy they'd send: the local bagman. But I was no stranger to dealing with crooked cops. Nor with criminals either, for that matter. After all, hadn't I come to town to meet a pair of old-time hoods named Icepick Willie and Chicken Little?CHAPTER 2
The knock came at nine-thirty the next morning. Della had just emerged from the bathroom wearing a black silk robe I'd bought her in Memphis the previous month. I opened the door and there he stood with ID already in his hand.
"Marne, Sheriff's Department," he said. "Mind if I come in?"
"Not at all," I said cheerfully. "I've been expecting you."
"Huh? Expecting me? I don't get it," he answered as he stepped into the room. He took the chair without being invited to sit, and I dropped down onto the sofa beside Della.
"Sure you do," I told him. "You've played out this scene before, and so have I."
A little lightbulb lit up somewhere inside Deputy Marne's head, and he nodded in understanding. He was a pudgy man of medium height, dressed in a tan suit with a red tie and a flat-brimmed western hat. His eyes were dark little marbles set in a round, doughy blob of a face that was as bland and free of guile as a baby's bottom.
"Then you won't mind showing some identification, will you?" he asked.
"Not at all," I said, and gave him my Texas driver's license. He studied it for a while, then handed it back.
"So what's your angle?" he asked.
"I'm looking for a poker game."
He threw his head back and laughed a braying little laugh. "No gambling here. Not in this town. It's against the law."
"I see," I replied, and nodded wisely. "Cleaned things up, have you? Reform administration and all that?"
"That's about the size of it, buddy." I said nothing. Instead I reached into my pants pocket and took out my money clip. Then I pulled off a nice crisp hundred like the ones I'd tried to give Della two days before and sat holding it in my hand, not offering it to him, but not saying anything either.
His eyes were on the bill. He licked his lips and started to speak, then snapped his mouth shut. He probably made one fifty a month, and back then you could buy a Ford or Chevy loaded with all the extras for fifteen hundred.
"Maybe the lady could take a walk," he finally said with a long look at Della.
I shook my head. I didn't like the idea of him coming in my place and telling me who went where. "I trust her with my life, so you'll just have to have a little faith in her too."
Della pulled her legs up under her, giving him a quick flash of soft, smooth inner thighs, a place he'd never be. Then she opened her book and began to read as though neither of us was in the room.
He nodded and returned his eyes to the bill. I placed it faceup on the coffee table and added another to it.
"You know, I could run you in for trying to bribe an officer," he said.
"That's right. You could. And you could also crack my head and keep the whole roll. Then a couple of days from now your boss might call you in his office and tell you that my father is a timber baron down East Texas who owns eleven sawmills and two banks, and that you don't have a job any longer."
"And none of it might be true," he said. "You might just be a tinhorn gambler with a flush roll and a big mouth."
"Right again," I said. "And that's the chance you have to take. But no matter what I am, if you run me in there won't be any more. At least not from me."
He nodded and licked his lips again. He stared at me in thought for a few seconds, then shot a quick glance at Della. She appeared lost in her book. After he zipped his eyes up and down her body a couple more times, he reached down with a short fat finger and a short fat thumb and picked up both bills. He folded them, and with a quick movement of his hand they disappeared into his inner coat pocket. "Okay. What's the story?" he asked.
"I wasn't entirely straight with you when I said I was looking for a game," I told him. "I already know where one is, and I want in it. I think you might just be the man to get me through the door."
"The one that runs every weekend up in the Plainsman Suite of the Weilbach Hotel."
"Man, do you know how much money you're talking about? You'd need at least five thousand to even sit down at the table."
"I'm aware of that."
"You can front that kind of cash?"
"I don't have it on me, but I'm about to open a legitimate bank account and have some money moved here by draft."
He looked at me with a new respect. "Bank account, huh? Moving money by draft ..."
"Can you get me in?" I asked.
"Yeah. It might take a few days. I'd have to see somebody that ain't always easy to see, but I could swing it."
"Good. Then here's what you do. Put that two hundred in your pocket and tell your boss the timber heir story. It'll pass. Tell him I'm a rich fool looking for ranch land to buy. Then I'll kick you an extra hundred every couple of weeks as long as I'm in the game."
There came a long pause during which he said nothing, but there was a greedy light in his eyes. The hundred every other week was what got him. He'd set the hook himself and all I had to do now was reel him in. "Is the story true?" he asked.
"What difference does it make if it's true or not? It'll pass if he checks on it. I guarantee that."
He looked at me dubiously. "I don't know ... I really don't like screwing the sheriff out of his cut."
"Sure you do," I said cheerfully. "You're just worried about getting away with it."
"And all you want for the two hundred a month is just getting into the game and being left alone? Is that right?"
"For the most part. I might ask a few little favors along the way, but believe me when I say they'll be nothing you wouldn't do for a friend anyhow."
He thought for a moment more, and I could almost hear the wooden cogs turning over in his round ball of a head. Then the ball bobbed up and down as he nodded. "Hand me that license again," he said.
I handed it over and he jotted down my name and number. "I'm going to check you out."
"Fine. I expected you to," I replied. I knew that when he called Austin he'd hear exactly what I wanted him to hear.
He rose from the chair and nodded at me. "Give me a couple of days. I'll come back when I have something for you."
At the door he turned, and asked me, "Say, you talk pretty smart, good grammar and all, like maybe you're a college guy. Are you?"
"I got a kid I'd like to be able to send to college. Where did you go?"
"Harvard," I told him. "Class of '25."
"Ahhh ..." he said with another of his braying laughs. "Harvard my ass! You grifters crack me up."
I laughed with him and we had ourselves a grand old laugh. "But I went to law school here in Texas," I said.
"Law school!" he hooted. I thought he was going to choke to death. "That's too much. You ever considered trying to get on radio?"
I matched him hoot for hoot and gave him a brotherly slap on the back. He went through the door still cackling, convinced that I was nothing more than a roving gambler with a good line of con going for me. If it made him happy to believe it, I had no intention of wasting my breath trying to change his mind.
I closed and locked the door and turned to Della. "Let's go get some breakfast," I said.
When she stood, I gathered her into my arms and pulled her close. I stroked her hair softly for a minute and then gave her a light, delicate kiss on the lips.
"What's this for?" she asked.
"I just felt like holding you for a minute," I told her.
"You're always so gentle," she said and kissed me in return. "Maybe a little too gentle, sometimes."
"Get dressed," I said. "I've got to go make a phone call and tell Chicken Little the sky's falling."
Excerpted from The Rogues' Game by Milton T. Burton. Copyright © 2005 Milton T. Burton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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