Richard nodded to the Captain of the Mariella as he crossed the gangway into the fifth floor lobby. It was a nice touch, he thought, to have the commander of the nine-decked ship greet every passenger personally - even passengers like Richard who had paid the minimum forty Euros for a shared cabin in the anchor deck. The spacious lobby was decorated practically and tastefully. It was by no means luxurious but this was no cruise ship, simply an oversized ferry catering primarily to money conscious families and business men. A person could make the seventeen hour overnight trip from Stockholm to Helsinki for between forty and a hundred euros, depending on the quality of accommodation. Directly opposite Richard's position at the foot of the gangway there were two lifts and a metal-framed sign pointing towards the toilets. To his left, two staircases flanked a rather pointless display of indoor plants, rising alongside photos of Norse Line's fleet and tri-lingual health and safety signs until they curved inwards, merged into one, and led backwards onto the sixth floor. Richard headed to his right, where an information desk sat between two passageways holding the standard-class cabins.
The desk was of polished wood - clean but cluttered by a mixture of leaflets advertising local attractions in Stockholm and Helsinki. Set into the wall behind was a combined medicine and first aid cabinet, along with a grid of small, numbered lockers intended for guest's valuables and personal items. The desk was staffed by two women in perfectly pressed white shirts that were edged with blue and bore an embroidered Norse Line logo. Richard guessed they were in their mid-forties. They could have been twins - both had a mask of liberally applied make-up and sported blonde hair pulled tightly and aggressively into a bun, under their matching cabin-crew style hats. These Scandinavian women certainly did not age well, thought Richard idly.
The woman to the right flashed a brilliantly practiced false smile. "Can I help you, sir?"
"No thanks. I'm just looking at the map," replied Richard, gesturing to the cross section of the ship which was displayed on the wall behind the counter. The ninth deck of the ship was called the 'Sky Deck' and appeared to be just an open air space for passengers to walk around. Directly below was the entertainment deck with several bars, restaurants and a casino. The seventh deck hosted the supermarket and the first class accommodation. Richard's eyes scanned downwards. He had been told by the ticket office in Stockholm's terminal that he would be staying below the cars and sure enough on the anchor deck, or "deck -2", the map indicated passenger cabins. Richard hefted his rucksack onto both shoulders and glanced at his ticket before heading across the lobby to the lift, weaving his way through the mill of families were starting to crowd the information desk and the welcoming staff.
The passageways of the ship were still quiet and Richard found his cabin quickly, sliding his rucksack under the aft bunk bed before making a quick survey of his temporary home. The cabin was oppressively small and he hoped whoever ended up sleeping on the top of the two bunk beds did not suffer from claustrophobia - the low ceiling offered perhaps two feet of headroom and designers had evidently opted to save money by not equipping the bed with a ladder. Amused, Richard claimed the bottom bunk with his small shoulder bag and hoped at least a couple of his roommates would be slightly-built acrobats. He noted the small bathroom by the door and found it predictably cramped and basic. The cabin was windowless, plain and offered absolutely nothing of interest except for the brightly coloured flyers offering the bearer a half-price speciality cocktail at the 8th floor nightclub. Richard scooped up all four of the flyers, stuffed them in the back pocket of his jeans and headed for the door, nearly clattering into his new roommates who were coming the other way.
He took a couple of paces backwards and swung his extended arm inwards, smiling and indicating for the newcomers to step inside. Richard tried a couple of polite greetings in English and Swedish but received only blank looks. He sat down on bed, ducking his head under the bunk above and shuffling back against the wall to give his roommates more room to settle and organise their belongings.
There were two men and one woman. All three individuals were haggard, unhygienic and dressed like beggars fresh from a dumpster-dive. The woman spoke animatedly in a language Richard did not understand, though he guessed it was Hungarian, and cajoled one of the men with a familiarity typical of a long, stressful marriage. He responded with an equal mix of frustration and energy, spreading the mass of household items the group had brought with them across the cabin. Richard travelled light, but this party seemed to have brought enough furnish a small caravan. They had no concept of personal space or manners, quickly monopolising the available storage space before claiming the rest of the cabin. Soon, the floor beside Richard's bed was strewn with a mixture of lampshades, photos, foreign magazines, clothes, towels and other assorted junk. He pulled himself upright, grabbed his shoulder bag, shot a disapproving look at the Hungarian group, before manoeuvring himself across the cabin to the doorway. The man and his wife took absolutely no notice of him and the third man seemed to have set up a sort of stove in the sink. Richard had no idea what the hell the contraption was, but a mixture of goulash-scented vapour and steam was pouring out from the bathroom into the main cabin. He shook his head a final time and stepped out into the passageway.
The anchor deck was markedly busier now - the ship was five minutes overdue for departure and it seemed that most of the passengers had done as Richard had - dropping off their belongings in order to comfortably explore the ship. As Richard retraced his steps to the lift, he could not help but notice the variety of characters inhabiting the lowest priced area of the ship. None resembled the quiet, humourless Swedish business groups or vacationing families he had shared the ticket queue with in Stockholm's ferry terminal. A large black woman shepherded her children into the open door of a cabin, struggling to balance a collection of bags on her arms and glaring at Richard as he brushed past. Two swarthy, dark-skinned men in Addidas tracksuits pulled watches from a Dolce & Gabbana satchel, clipping them around both wrists and upwards along their arms until they were tattooed with variety of gold, silver, diamond-encrusted, oversized watches. As Richard passed, they rose from their kneeling position by a fire extinguisher and walked in step with him towards the lift. Richard checked the back pocket of his jeans and walked the rest of the distance with his palms resting on his front pockets. He did not mean to cause offence but experience had taught him not to make himself a tempting target and his movements were deliberately unsubtle.
The watch-sellers departed the lift at the seventh floor, leaving just Richard and a short, wiry man dressed in a black peacoat and a black fedora heading upwards to the ninth deck. The lift paused and Richard exited, edging sideways past a couple and climbing a short flight of stairs to reach the open air. The man in the black fedora had not followed. Indeed, he had simply stayed in the lift, content to journey downwards with the new passengers.
Richard began a circuit of the weather deck, overtaking couples and groups of smokers who seemed thoroughly bored by the journey. He shared their assessment. The ship was now comfortably out of the port and though the surrounding Stockholm archipelago at least served to break up the landscape and offer the viewer some variety - it was by no means a spectacle of natural beauty. The weather was temperate, the sky cloudy and the Baltic sea beyond offered grey, unimpressive waves. Richard considered that for forty Euros he could hardly expect a cruise of the Norwegian Fjords or Jewels of the Caribbean. This was a very practical, economical, transport link. He descended a staircase to tour the eighth, or 'Entertainment', deck.
One end of the deck was taken up by a dedicated breakfast restaurant. It was 17:30 and the entrance was roped off but it seemed quite expansive and could probably seat two-hundred people. Richard had elected not to add the price of breakfast onto his fare and so he walked back the other way, down a corridor with a cluster of stools to his left offering a sea-view through large, deck-to-ceiling windows. This arrangement of stools and windows was repeated for the whole length of the ship, though the view to his right changed from a cigarette kiosk, to a cafe, to a cafe-bar and finally to a restaurant where the windows ended and Richard was funnelled into a nightclub through a corridor lined on both sides with arcade machines. The nightclub had a large bar, a stage with a semi-circular arrangement of seats for the audience, a casino and a dance floor. Naturally, the bar was shuttered, the stage filled with a jumble of audio equipment, the casino darkened and the dance floor empty. On the far side of the nightclub a group of passengers stood by a bank of windows, observing with interest the foam and swell generated by the ship's propulsion system. Richard sighed, and returned past the annoying jingle of the arcade to the cafe-bar, taking up position in a chair which offered no sea-view but was definitely more comfortable than those that did. He retrieved a well-read copy of Don Quixote from his shoulder-bag and did not move, or pay any attention to his surroundings, for the next several hours.
The ship was stopping. Richard looked up from his reverie to see a family pulling suitcases towards the central staircase beyond the cafe. It was only 22:05 and far too early for them to have reached Helsinki. He found his bookmark, closed Don Quixote and headed past the arcade machines into the nightclub, where an amateur band and attractive female lead singer were packing up their equipment. Parents escorted their children out of the club, perhaps the target audience of the nightclub was about to change, as the colourful band was replaced by a DJ who tinkered with an expansive audio system and tested strobe lights, or perhaps because they had to depart the ship as it now came to a stop.
At the far side of the club, by the bank of long windows, a crowd had gathered and as Richard joined them he saw that they had reached a small port. It was dark now but the pattern of lights beyond indicated a harbour, protruding jetties, a collection of ships of various length and purpose, sports fields, a cathedral and possibly an airport runway and traffic tower a couple of miles inland.
"That's Mariehamn," a woman beside Richard informed her partner.
"And it's interesting because it is Finnish territory, yet the majority of the population speak Swedish!"
"That is interesting," the man replied. He did not sound the least bit interested.
With the mystery now solved, Richard remembered the cocktail vouchers he had taken from his cabin and moved over to the bar. He thanked the bartender for his discounted concoction of pomegranate juice, lemonade and gin before joining the group clustered around the casino. One of the four seats was empty but Richard did not have much money and elected to stand back and watch along with two prim, middle-aged, disapproving couples and a young brunette.
Though the sign above proudly boasted "Casino", there was only one game being played. But at least the casino was on a raised platform which served to separate it from the rest of the nightclub and give its patrons the necessary feeling of exclusivity. In addition, the table was covered in lavish green felt and the gamblers were given twisting oak stools smartly furnished with black leather, along with their own drinks bar and the implied promise of personal service. A stand advertised the nightclub cocktail menu, again, implying exclusivity and stature - these gamblers did not need to waste their time with the common drinks of beer and wine. Richard was amused to note that the marketing ploy was paying dividends, judging by the empty, slim glasses holding some citrus fruit garnish that stood on the bar.
The dealer's eyes rolled with mild interest towards Richard, and then back to the table once he saw that the newcomer remained standing. The dealer was impeccably dressed in a sharply-creased white shirt, black waistcoat and a black tie sporting the Norse Line motif. His face was distinctly Scandinavian, with high cheekbones, a neatly groomed moustache and sleek black hair combed backwards in the Swedish style. He placed his hand on the shoe.
"Gentlemen, the game is blackjack," he announced impressively.
"We know! You don't need to say it before every fuckin' hand! This is some shitty casino on a ferry, not Monte Carlo!" piped up a tall, well-built American in his early twenties. He wore an 'Arizona State University' jacket and focused his annoyance on the table in front of him. The brunette moved to touch his shoulder but then thought better of it. Evidently, the American lad was on a losing-streak.
"Sir, I must ask you to mind your language," responded the dealer, visibly offended. The American snorted but said nothing. There were two other players at the table. On the leftmost seat and just in front of Richard sat a young man with long, matted black hair and an unkempt beard. He wore a leather jacket emblazoned with a scene of a popular Finnish rock band in concert and he looked every inch the heavy metal fan. The middle-left seat was empty and the middle-right was occupied by the loud American from Arizona State. Completing the row of gamblers was a formally dressed, aged and wrinkled oriental man who seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. The oriental seemed to be an acquaintance of the two middle-aged couples who stood behind him and looked on with disdain. All four of his companions were clearly businesspeople, dressed in well-fitting suits and seemingly there only for the moment when the oriental lost and their ill-opinions of nonsensical gambling would be vindicated.
The American lost the next few hands quite easily, drawing too many cards each time. The dealer's smooth remarks of "too-many" only served to aggravate him further. The heavy metal fan also seemed to be on a losing streak. He gambled heavily, once at the table's fifty euro limit, but in contrast to the American, the losses did not seem to bother him at all. Richard thought that it did not really matter whether the oriental won or lost. Every hand he simply betted the table minimum of two euros and was clearly playing to a perfect strategy. With his neatly arranged mountain of two euro chips, he could probably play in this fashion all night and would most likely finish off slightly up or slightly down on his initial stake. Richard doubted the man's business companions would have the chance to nod knowingly and escort a losing friend away from the table.
Finally, the American's luck seemed to have turned as the dealer matched his nineteen. Richard was as surprised as the American when the dealer slid the chips towards himself.
"Hey! We both drew nineteen! That's a stand-off, you idiot! Give me those chips back!"
"Sir, if you had read the rules, you would know that the dealer does not push until twenty." The dealer inclined his head towards a billboard hung on the wall to the right.
"That's bullshit!" cried the American, his voice even louder now. "Fuck these stupid Swedish rules!"
At this, the dealer lost his patience. "Sir! I have worked as a croupier in many Stockholm casinos and these are not Swedish rules! They are rules specific to this cruise ship and though I can appreciate your frustration, the house rules are clearly explained on the billboard!"
"My friend, he is right," offered the Finnish heavy metal fan in accented English. "These ship casinos do not offer you the best chance to win money, I think."
The brunette gently pulled the American away from the table. "Brad, let's go to the bar and chill out. Come on."
"No, I'm not letting these fuckers take my money! I don't even mind losing fair and square," he added, causing Richard and the Finn to roll their eyes in unison. "Here!" He exclaimed, slamming a fifty euro note in front of the dealer.
The dealer had regained his composure and calmly slid the note back towards the American. "I'm sorry, sir. That was the last hand of the shoe." He stood. "Gentlemen, if you would like to exchange your chips for cash, please go to the bar." The dealer flicked off the overhead light, nodded pleasantly to the Finn and the oriental, before walking across the dance floor and out of an exit marked "Staff Only."
The oriental scooped up his chips and headed with his business group to the bar. The Finn moved to finish the last of his drink, whilst the American just sat and fumed. Richard started towards the bar, remembering his remaining cocktail vouchers, but an appreciative murmur from the Finn caused him to turn back around. A new dealer had taken up position at the blackjack table.
Richard recognised him as the man he had shared the lift with earlier. He still wore the black fedora, the brim pulled down over his forehead but he had traded the black peacoat for the Norse Line white shirt and waistcoat. The Finn and the American settled in their seats and slid fresh euros to the dealer. Richard staked twenty euros of his own and slid into the middle-left seat.
The new dealer was certainly skilled. Every card was shown with some trick; some deft flourish; a flip or flick or triple speed-deal. He kept his eyes down, said nothing and offered nothing, preferring to make statements and interpret the players' decisions with small hand movements. Richard and the Finn recognised this as a trait of an experienced croupier accustomed to dealing with serious gamblers but the man's lack of emotion, interest or communication seemed to annoy the American.
"Hey! Don't tell me you don't push on nineteen either!"
The American muttered an expletive under his breath as he lost another hand. He threw the dealer a fifty euro note and staked all his remaining chips.
His girlfriend moved close to his ear, "Brad! Is that all our money?"
"So what if it is," he replied. "I can get more in Helsinki. Plus, if I win, I can't wait to smile in this prick's face." The American's girlfriend gasped. "Oh, relax. This idiot doesn't speak a word of English," he assured her.
In the next hand, all three of the players had excellent cards. The Finn had blackjack, Richard a nineteen and the American a twenty. Richard rolled his eyes upwards as the dealer dealt himself blackjack, taking Richard's small two euro bet and the American's large pile of chips. The American slammed the table with his fist, swore uselessly and stood up to leave. And it was at this moment that the dealer looked up from underneath his fedora.
"Would you like to play another game?" He spoke in English - or rather - half spoke, half sneered; and his accent was definitely French. The American was seemed taken aback but recovered quickly:
"That was the last of my money. But I guess you knew that anyway." The American motioned to his girlfriend to go ahead towards the bar and as he began to follow the dealer interjected:
"You still have your fingers."
"Your little finger, monsieur. Your pinkie finger. You can stake it for ten thousand euros."
Richard was shocked but showed nothing. The Finn was visibly disgusted and shook his head. The American's girlfriend eyes widened and she grasped her boyfriend's arm, pulling him away. Richard heard the words "freak" muttered. Surprisingly, the American seemed calm. He sat back into his seat.
"What's the game?"
"The game is simple, monsieur. I will draw four cards, one after the other. You must guess whether the succeeding card will be higher, or lower. If you are wrong, I take your finger. If you are right, I will give you ten thousand euros. In cash. Aces are high."
"You're on," replied the American, adjusting himself in his seat. His girlfriend began to pale and tried to pull him away. He firmly moved her arm away. "Look - it's ten thousand euros," he explained. "And what do I need my little finger for? I don't need it to hold a beer, open a door, drive a car, or play football. It's pretty useless." She stood back and gave him a pained, pleading look but said nothing.
Richard noticed that for the first time, the dealer's expression had changed. His grey-blue eyes were mocking and the thin lips were stretched taut into a sneer. Overall, he looked interested, excited, and maybe even hungry - he seemed completely different to the relaxed but expert croupier of before. The dealer removed a long length of white cord from somewhere under the table and quickly made a loop in one end. He slid the cord over to the American.
"Put your left hand through the loop and place your hand flat on the table. Pass the loose ends back underneath," he ordered.
For a second the American's mask of bravado slipped but nevertheless he did as instructed. The dealer grabbed the loose end of cord and pulled it under the table to his side. Next, he ran the cord across the top of the table and tied a knot from the American's thumb to ring finger, thus separating the little finger and giving the American's hand very little room to manoeuvre. Finally he fixed the cord to two of the table's legs that were on his side, each time pulling the slack tight so that by the time he had finished his work, the American's hand was splayed out on the table, immovable, with the little finger off to one side. The operation had been carried out with practised efficiency and Richard was in no doubt that the dealer had done this before. The Finn to his left made a noise of disgust but he did not move away. Everyone at the table was transfixed.
The dealer quickly dealt four cards, face down, and arranged them in a line on the table in front of the American. He took a fifth card from the shoe and used its edge to flip over the first card - the queen of diamonds. The American's shoulders sagged slightly and he slowly released his breath in concentration. It was a good card to start on - only if the second card were a queen, king or ace, would he lose.
"Lower." The dealer flipped over the second card - the five of clubs. By now the American's concentration was evident to everyone at the table. His thumbs rubbed nervous patterns on the inside of his fingers, his eyes very narrowed and his teeth set against each other. "Higher," he ordered the dealer. The dealer did nothing. "Higher," repeated the American, the tension in his voice evident. At this the dealer smiled and turned the third card - the ten of clubs.
Richard glanced to his right. The American's hands were still clenched and pressed down against the table; his body still tensed; his jaw still set - but he had been lucky - and he only needed to be lucky one more time to win the ten thousand euros. Though he wondered if the dealer really did have ten thousand euros in cash on him - he did not seem a particularly trustworthy character. Perhaps the American was thinking the exact same:
"OK. Let's see the money. This is the last card and my hand is tied to the table - yet you haven't shown me any money." The dealer frowned but reached under the table and withdrew a white envelope. It was unsealed and stuffed full of notes - he slid the uppermost note outwards with a finger to display its value.
The American nodded and the dealer replaced the envelope back underneath the table but as his hand returned the group noticed that it was not empty. In his open palm, the dealer held a small folding knife. He flicked the blade out with a thumb and it snapped into place. He placed it on the table, just inches to the right of where his hands now rested as he poised to reveal the last card.
The American's girlfriend paled. The American just stared at the knife, at the dealer, at the cards, and then back at the knife. Richard was shocked. The blade was no more than three inches long and the knife did not look particularly weighty, strong or even sharp. It was little better than a letter opener and hardly suited to chopping off a man's finger. It was barbaric.
The dealer hardly seemed to notice the reactions. He had wedged a spare card under the fourth card that was yet to be revealed.
"Are you ready, monsieur?"
The American nodded. "Higher," he instructed the dealer, breathing out quietly. Richard frowned. A person had a better chance to win if he called 'lower' - it was simple mathematics. He looked quizzically at the American. The American caught his look and responded: "Ten is my lucky number. Can't bet lower than a lucky number!" He sounded confident enough but there was nervousness behind the bravado. Richard wondered if the American was thinking clearly. He said nothing.
"As you wish," said the dealer quietly. He flipped over the last card. The assembled watchers gasped and then looked to the American who sagged into his seat and shook his head in relief. The fourth card was the queen of diamonds.
Richard looked over to the dealer - he held the knife in his hand. The American saw it too and there was a note of panic in his voice: "Hey! I won fair and square! Now give me my money! Come on, the ten thousand!"
The dealer did not reply. He rubbed his fingers over the knife handle and gripped it firmly. His head was bowed and the brim of the fedora hid his eyes. He seemed to be contemplating something. The seconds passed and still the dealer stared downwards. The American slapped his hand on the table in frustration. "Hey! Wake up! And get this fuckin' string off my hand!" The American tugged and jerked the string but his hand was fixed. He swore uselessly.
Finally, the dealer raised his head. His face was a mask of intensity. "You cannot win," he said simply. There was a pause but then the dealer's left hand shot out from under the table and he snatched at the American's bound hand, his left hand grabbing the American's wrist. The American yelled and struggled but his hand was immovable against the binding of the string and the white-knuckle grip of the dealer. The American sprung upwards and threw his right arm forwards in a defensive block but the dealer had extraordinary speed and the knife was up in the air, his eyes flashing wildly, his face the same mask of intensity, and the blade arced downwards to cut into the exposed finger that was trussed helpless against the table.
The downward slash was fast and powerful and would surely have cut the American's finger to the bone had Richard not reacted. Richard shot out his right arm and the edge of his forearm clashed with the dealer's own forearm, directing the blade into an open section of the table, barely avoiding the American's hand. He thrust his left palm into the dealer's shoulder and because the man was only slight of build, he was knocked off balance and back a few paces. However, the dealer recovered quickly and flicked his eyes towards Richard, the knife still gripped in his right hand. The dealer took a step to his left, perhaps to skirt round the table but now the Finn rose and the American stood just beside Richard, his free hand clenched. The dealer's mouth curled slightly but he now faced superior odds and he spun away. The group made no attempt to pursue. They just watched as he headed out of a darkened fire exit at the back of the casino, disappearing onto the outer deck.
The whole table was still in shock at the sudden violence but the Finn seemed more composed than the rest and helped the American release his bound hand, untying the knots and retracing the lengths of string where they crossed under the table. Soon, the job was complete and the American clenched the bundle of string in his hand before flinging it away in frustration. Then, without warning, the overhead light flicked on and a new figure was suddenly behind the casino table. No-one had even noticed him approach. It was the old dealer from earlier in the night.
"Who was the other dealer? The one after you, I mean," asked the Finn quietly.
"There is no other dealer after me," he replied, bemused.
"No, there definitely was," put in Richard.
"I'm sorry but you must be mistaken. I am only back here count up the day's takings before we arrive in Helsinki in the morning. I should have done it earlier but I forgot." He turned around the sign that advertised the evening's cocktail menu. "As you can see, we close at eleven o'clock."