Nobody Can Win ‘Em All cover

Nobody Can Win ‘Em All

By Robert Edward Eckels

Appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, February 1974

© 1973 by Robert Edward Eckels, reprinted by permission of the author

A deep-chuckle con-man story that would have delighted O. Henry, and, yes, Mark Twain—and who among devotees of the big con can resist that? Here is the very essence of “con”—in its pure and pristine form—involving the Game That Won the West and a marvelous “moment of truth”…Mr. Eckels, give us more exploits of Major Henry T. McDonlevy and his ingenious shenanigans…

The small round-faced girl at the receptionist’s desk just outside the railing that separated the executive offices from the rest of the bank looked up and gave me a bright professional smile. “Yes?” she said.

“My name is Thomas James,” I said. “I’m supposed to meet a friend of mine here. A Major McDonlevy.”

The girl’s smile faded. “I don’t believe—” she began dubiously.

I held my hand shoulder high “Short,” I said. “About five five and built something like a barrel on two legs.”

“Oh,” she said, the smile back in place, “that would be the gentleman with Mr. Andrews, Junior. Just a moment while I buzz them.”

She picked up her phone with one hand and simultaneously dialed a three-digit number with the other; in a moment she spoke softly into the receiver, then set it back in its place as smoothly as she had picked it up. “You’re to go right in,” she said. “Third office on your left.”

I gave her a smile and a wink for thanks and pushed through the swinging gate into officers’ country. The entire rear wall was lined with office doors, but even without the girl’s directions I would have had no difficulty locating Andrews, Junior’s, because his door was one of three that had names printed on them in neat gilt letters. I rapped once, then went on in without waiting for a response.

They both looked up as I came in and the Major rose automatically in greeting. And after a hesitation Andrews rose too. He was a tall man with thinning fair hair, a pale undistinguished blur of a face and, in his late thirties or early forties, relatively young to be such a high-ranking bank executive—although the fact that one of those other lettered doors had borne the name Andrews, Senior may have had something to do with it.

“Ah, there you are, my boy,” the Major said heartily. “Sorry to have gone off without you like that. But you know how it is with time and tide, and I see you got my message all right.”

“Yes,” I said.

“In your absence,” the Major went on, “I took the liberty of going ahead and discussing with Mr. Andrews our interest in the old Easdale Shoe building.”

“I see,” I said. “And what decision did you come to?”

“Well, of course I haven’t committed us to anything,” the Major said. “But the property does sound extremely promising, and since Mr. Andrews has consented to drive us, I suggest we run out and take a good look at the place and then see if we can’t come to a decision.”

“Fine with me,” I said. “I wouldn’t want to inconvenience Mr. Andrews, though.”

“No problem,” Andrews said in a voice that tried for a hail-fellow-well-met heartiness. “Thursday afternoons are always slow. But I’d be glad to do it at any time.”

I imagined he would. Because it wasn’t every day that someone showed up to express an interest in acquiring a building that had lain idle since the previous owner had defaulted on his mortgage six years before. But rather than bring that up, I just smiled and said, “Offer accepted then.”

“Good,” Andrews said. He moved around from behind his desk. “If you’ll just follow me,” he said. “My car’s right out back.”

* * *

Andrews wasn’t a fast driver. But he was a frightening one, given to swiveling his head and eyes away from the road as he talked in an attempt to include all his passengers in his conversation. As a result, he almost didn’t see the gray coupe pulled off onto the narrow shoulder until it was almost too late. But his head jerked back as the Major and I cried out a warning in near unison, and he managed to swing the wheel away just in time to avoid a hard sideswipe.

“Damn fool,” Andrews grumbled. “What’s he doing parked out on the highway?”

“I think you’d better stop,” the Major said.

“Why?” Andrews said, alarmed. “I didn’t hit him, did I?”

“No,” the Major said calmly. But he is a young lady, and she looks as if she were in distress.”

“Oh,” Andrews said. “Oh.” He didn’t look particularly happy about it, but he did pull over to the shoulder. As soon as he stopped, I got out and walked back to where a slim girl with long blonde hair framing a round, almost doll-like face stood beside the coupe.

“Trouble?” I said.

The girl looked at me apprehensively—which wasn’t an entirely unnatural or unexpected reaction since this was a lonely road and she couldn’t be sure I wasn’t a wolf out to add to whatever trouble she already had. Her face brightened almost immediately, though, when she saw Andrews and the Major coming up behind me.

“Oh,” she exclaimed, relieved. “Mr. Andrews.”

Andrews frowned and peered at her. “I don’t believe—” he said slowly.

“I’m Carol Ferguson,” the girl said. “And, oh, of course you don’t know me, but I’ve seen you several times when I’ve come to the bank on business for Mr. Robert Horsley.”

“I see,” Andrews said. “That explains it then.”

The Major stepped forward between them, inclining his head gravely. “Permit me to introduce myself,” he said. “Major Henry T. McDonlevy, formerly the U.S. Army’s and hence the world’s greatest adjutant, now retired and at your service.”

The girl acknowledged his half bow with a smile.

“That young gentleman over there grinning like a jackass,” he went on, “is my associate, Mr. Thomas James. Think we can help the young lady, Tom?”

“We can try,” I said. I spoke to Miss Ferguson. “What seems to be the trouble?”

She smiled wryly. “I’m not sure,” she said. “I pulled off the road to check my map for a turnoff and the motor stalled. And I haven’t been able to get it started again.”

“Let’s take a look,” I said. I lifted the hood, bent over the motor, and sniffed. The smell of gasoline was almost overpowering. “Just as I suspected. You flooded the carburetor. Do you have a screwdriver?”

“In the glove compartment, I think.”

I got out the screwdriver, then went back to the motor and unscrewed the air filter to get at the choke underneath. Setting the filter to one side, I used the screwdriver to prop the choke closed. Then I got in behind the wheel, floored the gas pedal, and turned the ignition key. The motor ground once, then kicked over and settled down to a steady purr. I got out, retrieved the screwdriver, and replaced the air filter.

“See,” I said, slamming the hood back down, “nothing to it.”

Miss Ferguson clapped her hands in glee. “Oh,” she cried, “I can’t thank you enough. I might have been stuck here all day.”

“No need to thank us at all, my dear,” the Major said. “Glad to be of service.”

“No,” she said, sobering somewhat but still smiling. “One good turn deserves another. Do you plan to be around town very long, Major?”

“That depends on how our business goes,” the Major said.

“Well,” she said, “if you decide you’ve had enough business and want to relax for a while, you’ll probably want to stop by Mr. Horsley’s.” She fumbled in her purse and brought out a business card which she handed to the Major. “Just show that and it’ll open the way for you.”

And with that she flashed me a bright “thank you” smile, got into her car, and pulled off onto the highway, giving us one last wave of her hand as she went past.

“Nice girl,” the Major said, slipping the card into his breast pocket. “I’m glad we stopped to help her.”

“I suppose,” Andrews said.

The Major looked at him curiously. “That’s an odd thing to say,” he said.

“Maybe it is,” Andrews said, “and I don’t know anything about her personally. She does work for Mr. Horsley, though. And—well, I suppose I shouldn’t talk against him since he is a depositor and his has always been a good account. But the fact of the matter is that Horsley runs a gambling den behind that restaurant of his.”

“Really?” the Major said. “I didn’t think gambling was legal in this state.”

“It isn’t,” Andrews said drily. “But most of Horsley’s customers are out-of-state people from across the river, and as long as there are no complaints locally, I guess the sheriff just looks the other way. Or lets himself be paid to.”

“I see,” the Major said. “Well, as Tom well knows, I try to live according to the precepts of the Good Book. And not being without sin myself, I hesitate to throw the first stone. But that’s neither here nor there, I suppose. So shall we get on with the business we set out to do?”

“Just what I was going to propose myself, Major,” Andrews said, and led us back to his car.

* * *

Whether as a result of the experience or not, Andrews did pay more attention to his driving and we made it the rest of the way to the building site without further incident.

The building itself was a long shedlike affair set well back from the highway on the crest of a low knoll. Unfortunately, in common with a lot of other factory buildings put up in this part of the country some 20 to 30 years ago, the lower half had been sided with corrugated metal sheeting and then left to fend for itself. It hadn’t done too well. On the other hand, the upper stories were all glass—or would have been if the broken windows had been replaced. Those few that remained intact had weathered to an opaque gray that almost matched the color of the metal below.

We spent a full hour tramping around and studying the building from all angles, both outside and in. Or rather the Major did. Andrews and I both copped out early and went back to his car to wait.

“Unusual man, your friend, the Major,” Andrews said.

“Yes, he is,” I said. “Very unusual.”

“He never did really make clear why you two were interested in this place,” Andrews added casually.

I smiled. “To be perfectly frank with you, Mr. Andrews,” I said, “I haven’t the slightest idea either. But this I do know: the Major never does anything without a reason and he has a positive genius for making money out of the most unlikely situations. Take my worthless Michigan swampland, for example. We gave that away and made $20,000 in the process.”

“Really?” Andrews said. He sounded more than a little interested.

“Really,” I said.

“Very interesting,” Andrews murmured and looked thoughtfully over at the old building.

Not long after that the Major finished his inspection and came back to join us.

“Well, Major,” Andrews said, “what’s your decision?”

The Major shrugged. “It’s hard to say,” he said. “The basic structure is sound, but it would take considerable work getting it in usable condition. And, of course,” he added, smiling, “a lot would depend on the kind of financial arrangements that could be worked out. But perhaps we can discuss those over dinner this evening.”

“With pleasure, Major,” Andrews said and put the car in gear. You could almost see him rubbing his hands together.

* * *

At the Major’s suggestion we ate at Horsley’s Restaurant. As a gesture of courtesy to Carol Ferguson for giving us the card of admittance, he said. But I wasn’t surprised—nor, I suspect, was Andrews—when after the meal the Major leaned back expansively and suggested we take a look in at the gambling room. “After all,” he said, “you can’t talk business forever. All work and no play, you know.”

Andrews hesitated, then nodded. “I suppose it would be foolish,” he said, “to have gotten this close and then go away without seeing what the place looks like.”

“You’ve never been here before?” I said.

He gave me an oblique look and shook his head. “I’m no gambler,” he said. “When I lay out money, I like the return to be calculated in advance.”

* * *

Carol Ferguson’s card admitted us into the gambling room without question. It was a standard layout, most of the action centered around a large craps table at one end of the room with a scattering of roulette wheels and other games occupying the rest of the room. Just for something to do, I bought a $10 stack of chips, lost it in fifteen minutes betting against the shooters at the craps table, then went over to rejoin Andrews and the Major watching the play at one of the roulette tables.

We were just about getting ready to leave when I spotted Carol Ferguson coming toward us. She was wearing a long hostess-type gown and had pinned her hair up in a stylish knot, but her smile was as friendly and bright as ever.

“Fancy meeting you here,” she said. “Enjoying yourselves?”

“Well, yes,” the Major said.

She caught the undertone in his voice and cocked her head to one side. “What’s the matter?” she said. “Don’t tell me they’ve wiped you out already?”

“No,” the Major said. “But I was hoping you’d have some card tables. Poker’s more my game than either dice or roulette.”

“Sorry,” she said. “We can’t offer you poker. Not enough action for the house. All we have in the way of cards is faro.”

The Major’s head came up smartly. “All?” he said. “Why I didn’t think anybody played faro anymore.”

“We do here,” she said. “It’s Mr. Horsley’s specialty.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of the game,” I said.

“Well, my boy, it’s time you did,” the Major said, “because faro’s the Game That Won the West and even when I was a boy it was the game to play. So much so, it was practically an American institution. But then like the buffalo and the nickel cigar it just seemed to vanish. Until today. Oh, I tell you, my boy—Andrews—we just can’t pass this by without giving it a whirl.”

Miss Ferguson looked at him dubiously. “Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned it,” she said. “It’s a pretty high-stakes game and I wouldn’t want you to get in over your head.”

“Don’t you worry about that, my dear,” the Major said. “I learned to swim a long time ago just so I could go in over my head.”

“Well, all right,” she said. “They keep moving it from place to place for security. Tonight it’s at Room 622 at the Madison House Hotel. I’ll phone ahead to let them know you’re coming.”

“Fine,” the Major said. He turned back to us, beaming. “Well, Tom—Andrews—shall we?”

Andrews shrugged. “I’ve come this far,” he said. “I’ll go all the way with you.”

* * *

The door to Room 622 opened as far as the safety chain would permit and an eye and half a face peered through the crack. The Major held up Carol Ferguson’s card for inspection. The man behind the door nodded, then opened up to let us enter.

It was a typical hotel room, except that the bed had been pushed to one side to make space for a table around which eight men were gathered. They all turned to give us a quick once-over as we came in and there was a flurry of mumbled introductions. But the only names that stuck were Jensen, the smooth-faced youth who had let us in, and Thorkill, the dealer.

The latter was a burly man in his late forties with the battered face and bulging muscles of the professional boxer. But for all his bulk there was no musclebound clumsiness about him. His thick-fingered hands cut and shuffled and dealt with surprising dexterity.

In some respects, though, his skill was wasted. Because, American institution or not, faro is really a simple game and, unless you’re involved in the betting, about as interesting to watch as dominoes.

All thirteen spades from ace to king are laid out on the table and the players place their bets on them to indicate whether they think a specific card will win or lose. When all bets are down, the dealer deals two cards face up off the top of the deck. The first is a “loser,” the second a “winner.” The house pays those who bet against the loser or on the winner and collects all other bets. And then the whole thing starts all over again.

It has only one advantage—if advantage is the right word. It’s fast and you can win or lose a lot of money in an extremely short time. As witness: it took the Major exactly fifteen minutes longer to lose the $300 in chips he bought than it had taken me to lose my $10 back at the main gambling room.

“Well,” the Major said, pushing his chair back, “I’m afraid that cleans me out.”

“Too bad,” Thorkill said dispassionately. “But nobody goes away from my table with nothing to show for his time. Jensen, take the gentlemen downstairs and buy them a drink. Then come right back up. I need you to spell me while I run over to the main house.”

“Yes, sir,” Jensen said and ushered us out.

Riding down in the elevator, I said, “That was a pretty expensive exercise in nostalgia, Major.”

“That it was, my boy,” the Major said. “However, $300 won’t break me—although I won’t deny I’d rather have the money than the experience.”

Jensen shifted his feet nervously. “I’m taking a chance by opening my mouth,” he said. “But you did Carol a good turn this afternoon, and Carol and I—well I just can’t stand by and see a friend of her cheated without saying something.”

The elevator doors slid open and we stepped out into the lobby. “Cheated?” the Major said.

Jensen nodded. “Thorkill was palming cards. He cheated you blind.”

“I see,” the Major said. He sighed. “Well, thank you for telling me anyway.”

“’Thank you for telling me’!” Andrews said. “Is that all you’re going to do about it?”

“I’m afraid there’s not much else I can do,” the Major said. “If we try to face Thorkill with no more proof than we have, he’ll simply laugh in our faces, and the net result will be to get our young friend here in trouble.”

“That’s exactly right,” Jensen said. “And if you go to the law—well, Bob Horsley has the law in his back pocket and Thorkill is Horsley’s right-hand man.”

“So he gets away with it,” Andrews said bitterly.

“Well, maybe not,” Jensen said. “I can’t just give you your money back, Major. But I can do this. When I go back up, I’m going to replace Thorkill as dealer, and I can palm cards with the best of ‘em. You come and get back in the game after he leaves and I’ll fix it so you can win your $300 back. After that, it’s up to you. You can quit then or you can continue to play with the understanding that as long as I’m dealing it’ll be an honest game after that.”

“Major,” I said, “don’t do it. It sounds too much like a come-on.”

Jensen flushed. “I made my offer,” he said, “and it stands. But if you want to kiss your $300 goodbye, it’s okay with me.”

The Major was silent for a long moment. Then he said, “I’m afraid I’m out of cash. Would you accept a check?”

“Under the circumstances,” Jensen said, “sure. But you’d better give it to me down here. I don’t want to set a precedent by letting some of the others upstairs see it.”

“Of course,” the Major said. Then they went together to the hotel desk to ask for a blank check and stood there for a few moments while the Major filled it out. Then Jensen took the check and went over to the elevator. The Major came back to where Andrews and I had remained standing.

“You just made a big mistake, Major,” I said.

“Perhaps so, my boy,” the Major said. “But nothing ventured, nothing gained. And I think you can trust the old Major to look out for himself.”

“I hope so,” I said. “But you’re sure not giving me much basis for trust.”

He just gave me a smug smile for reply. And not long afterward the elevator came down and Thorkill got out and strode past us. The Major let him get clear out of the building, then headed toward the elevator.

I turned to Andrews and spread my hands helplessly. “I hope I’m wrong about this,” I said. “But just in case I’m not, we’d better stick with him to make sure he doesn’t get burned too badly.”

Andrews nodded and followed the Major with me.

Jensen let us in as before, slipping the Major a stack of chips as he passed by. Then the Major took his former seat and play stared in earnest.

I made it a point to stand directly in back of the Major and to watch Jensen closely. He wasn’t quite as good with cards as Thorkill, but he was good enough and if I hadn’t been watching for them I never would have seen him palming the “winners” he slipped in.

When the Major’s winnings reached the $300 mark, I tapped him on the shoulder. “Time to call it quits,” I said.

“Nonsense, my boy,” he said. “We’ve just gotten back to where we started and the way to go from there is upward and forward.”

“All right,” I said. “But I want you to promise me that you will quit as soon as you lose that $300 back.”

The Major nodded. “Agreed,” he said. “If I lose it back.”

And he didn’t. He won. Not every turn, of course. But consistently enough and for ever-increasing stakes so that when the game broke up shortly after 2:00 A.M. the pile of chips in front of him had grown to staggering proportions.

“Count it up for me, will you, my boy?” he said to Jensen.

Jensen’s hands moved swiftly, stacking and tallying chips. “Over $35,000,” he said when he had finished. “$35,310 to be exact.”

An almost reverent hush fell over the room at the mention of that much money.

“That’s a lot more than I can cover with what I’ve got on hand,” Jensen said. “So I’ll have to give you and I.O.U. on Horsley. You don’t have to worry, though. Horsley never welches on a debt.”

“I’m sure of that, my boy,” the Major said, beaming. “But if you don’t mind, I’ll take my check back as part payment.”

“What check?” a harsh voice said. It was Thorkill standing just inside the doorway and glowering into the room.

“My check, of course,” the Major said. “The one the lad here was good enough to accept and let me get back into the game.”

Thorkill advanced on Jensen who quailed before him. “What’s wrong with you, Jensen? First you forget to chain the door so anybody could have busted in on you. And then you let some guy play with a check that could be just so much worthless paper.”

“I resent that,” the Major said.

“I’ll bet you do,” Thorkill said, swinging around on him. “But resent it or not, the rule’s the rule. And we don’t let guys play on checks.”

“By George,” the Major exclaimed, “I see what you’re doing. You’re using this as an excuse to bilk me out of my winnings.”

“That’s exactly what he’s doing,” Andrews chimed in. He thrust his pale face out at Thorkill. “Well, let me tell you, you’re not going to get away with it. I’ll see to it that your name and Horsley’s will stink in this county.”

Thorkill made little placating motions with his hands. “Now, everybody cool it,” he said. “Nobody’s trying to bilk anybody out of anything. I’m just not going to be four-flushed, that’s all. You’ll get your I.O.U. all right, Major. It’ll be for the full amount and it’ll be conditional on your check clearing through the banks without a hitch. Fair enough?”

The Major just stared at him stonily. Finally Andrews spoke. “I don’t see how you can really object to that, Major,” he said. “The man’s only taking an elementary precaution.”

“All right,” the Major said shortly and accepted the I.O.U. that Thorkill offered him. Then the Major, Andrews and I left.

Once we were away from the building, the Major laughed wryly. “Well, easy come, easy go,” he said and held up the I.O.U. as if to tear it in wot.

“What are you doing?” Andrews cried, shocked. “That’s worth over $35,000 when your check clears your bank.”

“That’s just the trouble,” the Major said. “The check isn’t going to clear. Because, like Tom, I suspected Jensen’s offer might be just a come-on. So I covered myself by buying back into the game with a rubber check. But now it seems that all I did was outsmart myself.”

“Maybe not,” I said. “It’s bound to take a couple of days for that check to clear the local banks. So all you have to do is get enough money into the bank you wrote it on to cover it before it gets there.”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” the Major said, “because there is no such bank. I just wrote down the first name that occurred to me.” He gave another short wry laugh. “Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned here. Nobody can win ‘em all.”

“You can win this one, though, Major,” Andrews said quietly.

“Can I, by George? How?”

“It’s so simple I’m surprised you didn’t think of it yourself. As I told you, Horsley has his account at my bank, and that’s where he’ll present your check.”

“Of course,” the Major exclaimed. “All you have to do is honor it and Horsley and Thorkill will have to pay off.”

“Precisely,” Andrews said.

“Andrews,” the Major said, “if you’ll do this for me—”

“I wasn’t thinking of doing it for you, Major,” Andrews said. “I was thinking of doing it for us. Shall we say a partnership? Fifty-fifty on your winnings.”

“Fifty—” the Major began, then broke off and smiled. “Well,” he said, “you’re asking a lot, but I suppose half of something is better than all of nothing. You have a deal, sir.”

“I thought you’d see it that way,” Andrews said. “But just in case you’re tempted to change your mind, I’ll hold the I.O.U. until we go to cash it. You see,” he added, smiling, “you’re not the only one who knows how to protect himself.”

“So it would seem,” the Major said sadly, handing over the paper.

And on that we parted.

* * *

Shortly before noon the next day there was a knock on our hotel room door. I got up, trailing the newspaper I’d been reading, to answer it.

It was Thorkill. “Hi,” he said and walked right past me.

“Ah, there you are,” the Major said. “Any difficulty at the bank?”

“None whatsoever,” Thorkill said. “Andrews boggled a little when he saw the check was for $5000, but in the end he paid over like the little gentleman he is. I took out $500 to cover paying off the others plus $1000 for myself. That leaves $3500 for you two.”

“As agreed,” the Major said, accepting the money Thorkill offered him. “how long do we have?”

“A couple of hours at least,” Thorkill said. “Andrews wanted to know when you could cash the I.O.U. I said Horsley would be out of town until three this afternoon but to come out any time after that.”

“In that case, my boy,” the Major said to me, “I suggest we waste no time. Because as soon as our banker friend discovers that Horsley did not have a faro layout here at the hotel last night and in fact has never had one, he’s bound to realize that everything from our interest in that disaster of a building to meeting Carol on the road to the faro room was simply a setup to get him to pay $5000 on a worthless check. And discretion would seem to dictate that we be a long way from here when that moment of truth hits him.”