Story Excerpt

Dead Man's Hand

by Michael Steele Valade

Art by Tim Foley

Hank Farmer filled a wooden bowl with salt-and-vinegar potato chips and another with honey mustard pretzels, then opened a clear plastic canister of generic cheese doodles and a family-sized bag of traditional Chex Mix and set them all on the table. He arranged them just so, then brushed the crumbs off the green felt tablecloth and onto the floor with one hand and stood there thinking with his hands on his hips.

He thought he remembered that someone in the group liked the nuts in Chex Mix, but he couldn’t remember who. He didn’t know anything about the new guy so thought it must be Andy. Or maybe Gus. Then he wondered whether they still even put nuts in Chex Mix anymore, and right on the heels of that thought he wondered why he hadn’t just asked Elizabeth to get a bag of peanuts instead of Chex Mix if peanuts were what they were after in the first place?

Shaking his head, he took out two decks of Bicycle playing cards, one red and one blue, both still sealed in plastic, and set them on the table at the dealer’s chair, then knelt down beside the hutch and pulled out a brown paper bag full of poker chips and started arranging them on the table in neat piles of one, five-, ten-, and twenty-five-dollar values.

He had just finished setting five places when the doorbell rang, and he heard Gus Peterbrock’s phlegmy baritone bark out a loud, “How the hell are you, Liz?” This was followed by a coarse laugh, a smacking sound, and a surprised yelp, and Hank stood there looking up the stairs and wondering, Did that fat bastard just slap my wife on the ass?

The basement door opened, and Gus appeared at the top step smiling down. He descended with loud grunts and wheezes, his pink jowls jiggling. Beads of sweat glistened on his forehead through wisps of brown hair that straggled out from beneath the brim of a New York Mets baseball cap. The fabric of a too-small yellow T-shirt was stretched so thin across the massive swell of his abdomen that it was almost (and obscenely) transparent. Pale legs oozed out of tan shorts. White gym socks sagged around thick ankles stuffed into blue running shoes. He had a grocery sack tucked under one arm, and he handed it to Hank when he got to the bottom of the stairs.

“Put those on ice, buddy?” he panted.

“You got it,” Hank said, taking a twelve-pack of Bud Light out of the bag and burying the bottles one by one in the Styrofoam cooler on the floor.

Gus took a handful of cheese doodles, held them over his face, and let them drop into his mouth. “Crocker’s gonna be late,” he said.


“I dunno,” he shrugged. “He just said to tell you.”

Hank heard the doorbell ring again followed by the indistinct sound of voices exchanging pleasantries, then the door at the top of the stairs opened, and Andy Culbertson appeared: tall, thin, and deeply freckled, with bright red hair that faded to gray at the temples. Rheumy eyes the color of dishwater swam magnified behind the thick lenses of his glasses.

“What’s up, fellas!” he called out.

Behind him was the newcomer, and as the two descended, Hank tried to size the man up. A good half head shorter than Andy and wearing faded jeans and a light gray, short-sleeve work shirt over a plain white undershirt, he was lean and sinewy, with close-cropped dark hair, a gaunt face, and intense deep-set eyes.

At the bottom of the stairs, Andy handed Hank a box of cheap off-brand cigars with a vaguely Turkish name. Hank thanked him while secretly hoping these weren’t the same artificially flavored, whiskey-infused, nausea-inducing torture sticks he brought last time, then he set the box on the hutch beside the table and stuck his hand out toward the stranger.

“Hank Farmer,” he said. “Welcome!”

The man shook his hand but did not meet his eyes, which rankled Hank. Noting the man’s numerous tattoos—a blue teardrop at the corner of his right eye, Lady Luck sprawled topless over a pair of dice on his left bicep, a quad of aces fanned out across the muscles of his right forearm—Hank wondered: Did Andy bring us a fish, or a shark?

“Ray Lancaster,” the man mumbled, glancing around the basement den. “Nice place you got here.”

“Yeah, thanks. Just bought it last year.”

“Must be a helluva mortgage payment.”


“Hey, Hank,” Gus interrupted, digging through the bowl of Chex Mix. “You got any peanuts?”

“No, sorry,” he said, and then the doorbell rang one last time for Ben Crocker, who wasn’t late after all.


Andy sat in the dealer’s chair with an open bottle of Bud Light on the table beside him and a lit cigar (that did in fact smell like a wet dog) clenched in the corner of his mouth.

Ben sat in the fourth seat of five counting clockwise from the dealer. At sixty-three, he was the oldest of the bunch but by no means the wisest. It was said that if you wanted something done that didn’t require a lot of thought, Ben was your man. Gray-haired and brown-eyed with a potato nose and bushy mustache, he wore a black nylon jacket over a plaid V-neck sweater, dark brown polyester slacks, and white walking shoes.

Andy unwrapped a fresh deck and cut it toward the top.

“Cut ’em thin to win,” Ben said, nodding sagely.

The newcomer, Ray, asked, “What are we playin’?”

While shuffling the deck, Andy replied, “King-three, you got a four. Queen-deuce gets a five. A pair of sevens gets a john. And the big ace gets a slap in the face.”

The other men groaned.

Gus threw a handful of cheese doodles at him.

“Jesus, Andy . . .” said Ben.

“What’s he talking about, a slap in the face?” Ray asked, sitting up in his chair. The muscles along his jawline twitched.

“Ignore him,” said Hank. “Somehow he manages to quote that movie every time we play.”

“What movie?”

“Cool Hand Luke,” Gus said.

“Wait until he gets going on Rounders, or The Sting, or Casino Royale...” said Ben.

Hank laughed. “Too many damned poker movies!”

“I see you’ve changed your shirt, Mr. Bond. I hope our little game isn’t causing you to perspire,” Andy said in a chopped accent that might have been German, and Gus pelted him with more cheese doodles.

“Next time it’s the hard pretzels.” Gus chortled, pointing a pudgy finger at Andy. “If you knew half as much about poker as you know about poker movies—”

Ray looked restless so Hank said, “The game is One, Two No-Limit Hold ’Em. Andy has the first button.”

Hank threw in a one dollar chip for the little blind and Gus threw in two dollars for the big blind, then Andy dealt the cards until each man had two in the hole facedown on the table in front of him.

Everyone peeked at their cards and turned to Ray.

He threw in two one dollar chips and said, “Call.”

Ben said, “Fold.”

Andy said, “That was fast. Call.”

Hank said, “Call.”

Gus said, “Check.”

Hank got up, went to the cooler, and took out a beer for himself. He twisted it open and took a swallow then threw a cold bottle to each of the other men while Andy dealt three cards face up in the middle of the table for the flop.

It was the fifth street of the third hand before Ray brought up the bank job.


“So how do you two know each other?”

Hank glanced up from his cards to look from Andy to Ray.

Cigars smoldered in mouths and ashtrays, smoke hung heavily in the air, and empty beer bottles lined up around the table like dead soldiers. Poker chips stood in uneven stacks in front of each man with a growing pile in the middle.

Ray threw in a twenty-five-dollar chip and said, “Raise.”

Andy said, “Mutual friend.”

Hank lifted one eyebrow. “Oh?”

“You know Pete down at the Sunoco?”

“Malavoy?” Ben said.

“The very same.” Andy threw in a twenty-five dollar chip to call the raise, said, “Ray works in the garage there with him. Just moved here from out of town. Said he was looking to play cards so I invited him over.”

“That right?” said Hank. “Just a friendly game then?”

“That’s right,” said Ray.

“I’ll raise,” said Hank. He threw in two twenty-five-dollar chips. “Where you coming from, Ray?”

Gus eyed the pot. “Too rich for my blood.”

Ray looked back at Hank for a long time before he answered. “Canon City,” he said then threw in his chips.

Shaking his head, Ben said, “Fold.”

Andy said, “The unsteady hand betrays,” and mucked his cards.

Gus screwed up his face. “What’s that one from?”

“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”

“Always liked that one.” Ben laughed and then in a poor imitation of John Wayne’s gruff swagger added: “I know those law books mean a lot to you, but out here a man settles his own problems.”

“Dead man’s hand,” Ray said suddenly.

The men looked up at him.

“Liberty Valance drew one in the movie,” he said, meeting each of their eyes, “right before he was killed.”

“That’s right,” Andy said. “Same cards Wild Bill Hickok was reputed to have held when he was murdered in a saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota.”

“The cursed hand,” said Gus, nodding.

Hank studied Ray, then said, “What were you in for, Ray?”

Ben gaped. “Hank, what are you—”

“Canon City,” Hank said. “Prison town, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Ray said. “So what?”

“So nothing,” Hank said. “Just curious. What’ve you got?”

Ray showed his hand.

Hank cursed and Gus laughed.

“Hot damn!” Ben said, slapping the table. “He hit an inside straight to beat your two pair, Hank!”

“Must’ve hit that on the river!” marveled Andy. “That’s a helluva bad beat!”

“Indeed it is,” Hank conceded. “Lucky bastard.”

Ray raked in his chips, met Hank’s eye, and said, “First-degree robbery, second-degree larceny.” He looked around the table at the stunned faces staring back at him then turned the corner of his mouth up in a smirk. “For robbing a Fifth Third bank in Colorado Springs.”


Gus leaned forward on massive elbows, and the table tilted under his weight, spilling Ben’s beer and making the old man squawk.


Ben picked up his Bud and shot Gus an angry glare, then swiped at the spill with his bare hand, sending foamy droplets sailing toward Andy, who only sighed and looked up at the ceiling with an exasperated expression on his face.

“So how’d you get caught?” asked Gus.

Ray pushed his chair away from the table, put a foot up on one knee, and leaned back with his hands clasped behind his head. “Stupidity mostly,” he said. “A bunch of rookie mistakes and one real whopper.”

“What was that?” said Gus.

“Already told you,” said Ray.

“Whaddaya mean?” asked Ben, setting his beer back down.

“He said the bank was in Colorado Springs,” said Hank.

“So?” said Gus.

“So that’s a big city, isn’t it?” said Hank.

Ray nodded and said, “Which means it has a big city police force who’re never more than a phone call away, and those big city banks have big city money, which means they can afford the expensive toys: metal detectors, security cameras, trained guards, time-locked safes—”

“Exploding dye packs, automatic alarms—” added Hank.

“Not to mention police helicopters at their disposal,” said Ray, shaking his head. “We were like fish in a barrel.”

“Damn,” said Gus solemnly. He shook the empty canister of cheese doodles with a forlorn look on his face. “You got any more of these, Hank?”

“Check the cabinets.”

Gus stood up with a grunt and lumbered away while Ray went on. “Now you try someplace like Plena or Lincolnville or—”

“Or here,” said Hank.

“Yeah,” said Ray, smiling. “Minimal security, minimal staff, all that small town charm and trust.” He picked up the smoldering half-smoked cigar in his ashtray, took a long drag, and blew the smoke out in rings. “A place like this is definitely where it’s at.”

Hank and Andy exchanged glances.

Ben gave a little shiver, zipped up his jacket, and said, “How long did they put you away for?”

“Served thirty-eight months of a five-year sentence.”

Gus plopped back down in his chair, unscrewed the lid on a fresh container of cheese doodles, and said, “Was it worth it?”

“Now that’s a hard question to answer,” said Ray. “On the one hand, that’s three years of my life I’m never gonna get back.”

“And on the other hand?” asked Hank.

“Well, let’s just say there’s close to half a million dollars from that Fifth Third job that’s still unaccounted for.”

The men sat in pin-drop silence.

When Ben finally spoke, his voice was barely a whisper. . . .



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Copyright © 2019. Dead Man's Hand by Michael Steele Valade