The Bet Biker fiction
A card game, a guy with a plan, and a very unlikely motorcycle. It sounds like a high stakes recipe for a whole lot of trouble...
JACK FRENCH SAID, “Look, it’s perfectly simple. When I give you the look, I want you to roll your eyes at me, shake your head a couple of times, and say softly, ‘Don’t do it, Jack.’ Then, when I give you the second look, I want you to get up from the table, shake your head again and say, ‘I ain’t having no part of this.’ Then you leave.”
“Leave to go where?” I said, totally confused by what he was telling me, or trying to tell me. “Where am I supposed to go?”
“Anybleedingwhere,” he said. “Just get the effing hell out of it and leave the rest to me.”
“The rest of what?” I said. “And how will I know when you give me the look?”
“And you’ll give me two of them?”
“And after the second look, I get up and leave? Just like that?”
Jack smiled. “Just like that.”
I had no idea what the hell was going on. All I knew was that Jack had another idea in his head, and that we were standing in his garage and getting set to take off on a ride to a club that he’d recently been introduced to. More specifically, a gambling club. Not the world’s biggest. Not by a long way. And maybe not even the biggest in the county. But it was still big enough for guys to drop fifty grand a night and shrug it off.
There were only three rules at this club, Jack had said. The first was that you needed ten grand to get in through the door.
“Have you got ten grand?” I said.
He dipped into his rucksack on the workbench and pulled out a huge wedge of crisp brown notes.
“Okay,” I said, impressed. “What’s the second rule?”
The second rule, he explained, was that you paid your tab right there and then on the night. No IOUs. No cheques. And no promises. It’s cash, or a Ferrari, or a Rolex on the nail.
“And what’s the third rule?” I said.
The third rule,” he explained, “is that you don’t bring any guns.”
“Guns?” My eyeballs spun. “What’s all this about guns?”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Jack. “It’s just a formality.”
“A formality? What kind of club has a formality that says you can’t bring guns? I’m not sure that I like the sound of this place. It could be dangerous.”
Jack gave me that famous look of his; the one that said, “Trust me.” And like a fool, of course, I trusted him.
I’ve always trusted him, ever since we were kids together at school. He was my best mate; the guy most likely to drop you in it, and the guy most likely to get you out of it.
He was always coming up with a new plan. A new get rich quick scheme. Sometimes they worked, but mostly they didn’t. Sometimes they got us arrested. Sometimes they only got us laid. One or twice they got us beat up. But always Jack had an ace up his sleeve, so to speak. A get out of jail card. An exit strategy.
For years I’d been telling him that one day he’ll go too far, that sooner or later he’d bite off more than he could chew. And that night, as we rode away from his garage and headed towards the gambling club where you weren’t allowed to bring guns, I had an awful feeling that that day had finally arrived.
* * *
It was just after 8.00pm. October. Chilly. And moonless. I was riding my newly restored and 99 percent correct BSA A65. Jack was riding his Famous Bitsa which was well known in the area and was frequently mistaken for a lot of other interesting bikes. The forks were taken (“with permission”, he explained) from a 1938 Indian Scout. The petrol tank was a replica Brough Superior item that had been hammered out in a sweatshop in Calcutta or Bombay, roughly dipped in a chrome plating vat, and kicked around by the Royal Mail (that explained all the dents).
The engine came from a 1944 Harley WL. The gearbox was Norton. The wheels fell off an autojumble stall, and Jack couldn’t remember what the hell they were. He’d simply bolted them on front and back and had hooked up some cables, and they worked.
That bike was a heap of the first order. But what it lacked in pedigree and history and originality, it more than made up for in coooooool. It sounded like a misfiring Spitfire, was painted mostly with rust and Halfords touch-up paint, dripped gallons of oil and petrol over the course of an average month, and smoked like Big John Wayne. But you could park that motorcycle anywhere, and within minutes people would pull out cameras and start snapping away.
Dozens of times I’ve seen guys all but go down on their knees and beg him to sell them that bike, and I’ve watched Jack, with his equally famous goatee beard and pony tail, smile at them as if he was genuinely considering the offer, then finally shake his head and say, “Nah, I couldn’t do that. Me and Geronimo here go back. You know what I mean?”
Whereas Geronimo, as Jack sometimes called it (usually when he was turning down an offer to buy) actually went back only a couple of years. But they looked like a much older pair, that was the point; Geronimo with all the rust and oil and chipped paint and the kind of patina that normally takes half a century to develop, and Jack with that weirdly sage glint in his eyes, like he was looking beyond the obvious and seeing things that lesser men were blind to.
One time a guy came up and asked him what kind of bike that was, and Jack said, “Harley Bonneville.”
And the guy looked impressed and nodded and asked how much Jack wanted for it.
Another time, when we were parked up near Piccadilly Circus, a couple of American tourists got curious and Jack gave them some spiel that the bike had once belonged to General George Paton and had been re-discovered just a few years ago in a field just outside Berlin. It was on TV. Jay Leno himself presented that story.
If I’d said that, no one would have believed me. No one ever believes me really, not even when I’m telling the truth. But Jack was a kind of human spider who could spin a web of deceit that even the most harden cynic or sceptic would become entangled in.
For a while, anyway.
And I was thinking exactly that as we pulled up outside the club that night, chained the bikes together and walked up to the door where the security guys could frisk us for .44 Magnums, 9mm Uzis or reconditioned Kalashnikovs.
I wasn’t feeling happy, I can tell you.
* * *
Two guys with shoulders the size of Hertfordshire stopped us with a look and motioned us to raise our hands. Mine went up in a nanosecond. But Jack gave them the look, like he’d just stepped in doggy doo-doo and was considering wiping it off, then reluctantly complied. The guys at the door seemed to respect that. They patted me down with embarrassing indifference, but patted Jack down like they expected him to detonate at any second.
He didn’t detonate, of course. Jack never detonated. Instead, he jerked his head at Geronimo and said, “That’s a very expensive motorcycle back there, and if it ain’t there when I finish this game, I’m gonna be asking awkward questions. Get my drift?”
The two Hertfordshire-shoulder guys looked over his shoulders at the Famous Bitza, checked each other’s expressions, then looked at Jack.
“Have a nice night,” one of them said.
“I plan to,” replied Jack, and he curled his finger at me and invited me to follow deeper into his latest scheme.
I’d taken about twenty steps before I remembered that my hands were still in the air. I brought them down quickly and looked back at the security guys. They were gazing at Geronimo, and one was jabbering away on a walkie-talkie thingy like he was passing the word along; that Steve McQueen, Bruce Willis and Mickey Rourke all-rolled-into-one had arrived on a very expensive pair of wheels and was looking to have a good night.
I said, “Jack…”
And from the corner of his mouth he curled his lips and told me to shut up and wait for the look.
We came to another door. Two more muscleheads were waiting. They didn’t want to check us for guns. They wanted to see our invitations. Jack pulled them from his leather jacket. The muscleheads checked them over, both moving their lips as they read.
They said, “And who’s this guy?”
“He’s with me,” said Jack. “He’s my accountant.”
I gave them a look hoping that they didn’t spot me for the van driver I was, and they let it go.
Then they asked if we had the entry money. So Jack tugged at his rucksack and said, “Ten big 'uns. Wanna count it?”
The muscleheads were about to do exactly that, but Jack had the look out again, and they hesitated, exchanged glances, shook their noggins and told us to “get within, fellas”.
We did exactly that, but in passing Jack handed the security bozos our crash helmets and told them to keep the lids warm, and he walked on before either of them framed a suitable response.
“Make sure you give me that look really good,” I said, looking back.
Jack said nothing, and within a few minutes he was seated at a gaming table large enough to accommodate the United Nations.
* * *
An hour later, he'd dropped four thousand pounds. The drinks were free, but I was sticking with Coca Cola and, for variety, Pepsi. Jack had swallowed a couple of beers, and from somewhere he'd produced a cigar the size of a torpedo and was contentedly working through it.
He wasn't the only guest chugging smoke. Every gambler in the room was at it. It was like they’d all watched a lot of old black and white gambling movies and understood that you couldn’t have a decent game without filling the air with enough fumes to wipe out Nagasaki a second time. But Jack's cigar dominated, like he'd planned it that way.
The cards went round again. The bets were placed. The expressions were stony or inscrutable. I didn’t know what the hell they were playing. It might have been poker. It might have been something else. It looked as complicated as algebra. But I wasn’t really paying attention anyway to the mechanics. Instead, I was looking at the other players and remembering where I’d seen some of these guys, and that was on TV mostly; either being handcuffed and led into a courtroom with a dozen coppers hustling them along, or coming out of a courtroom and squirting champagne at the press cameras.
One guy, I recalled, had stabbed two guys to death in a pub fight. He was big news for a few months, and was then mostly forgotten. Until that moment, that is.
Another guy, I vaguely remembered, was related in some distant way to the Kray Twins. Or maybe the Richardsons. Or it might have been Al Capone. Regardless, he was a known face on the London villainy circuit.
And there was another guy with a face like a steam iron and more scars than a Maasai warrior. He kept glancing my way and smiling like he was getting ideas. I did what I could to keep my peepers planted elsewhere tried to look terminally hetero.
What else could I do?
Then Jack gave a sigh, threw down his cards, got up, stretched and sauntered off for a leak. I went with him, and stopped him in the hallway.
“We should get out of here,” I whispered.
“Why?” he said.
“Those guys in there,” I explained, jerking my head. “They’re killers.”
“Not all of them,” said Jack. “And none of them have guns.”
“Look, Tonto,” he said, gently patting my cheek. “Swill and chill. I’m just getting started.”
And I did as he suggested, and an hour later, things really heated up.
* * *
Jack won three thousand quid, scooped in another two, and then dropped five. Quickly the gambling intensified. I watched the pot in the middle of the table grow. First it was just a small pile. Then it was a large pile. Then it was a heap. And then it was a BIG heap. I tried some mental arithmetic, and I figured there was maybe thirty thousand pounds in there. Then someone flipped in a BMW key fob and I thought back to the vehicles in the car park where we’ve left Geronimo and my A65. They were all expensive cars. Mercedes. A Porsche or two. A Jaguar. And a Bentley.
Then some pointed looks were exchanged around the table, and then there was a lot of cursing and a lot of cheering. And then one of the players got up from the table, dribbled some spittle and stormed out of the room in disgust.
Everyone swivelled in their chairs and watched him go, but no one said anything. No one went after him. They just lit up more fuses, ordered more beer and scotch and whatever else they were drinking, and then the cards flapped down again.
I positioned myself so as to catch Jack’s look if and when it came, because it didn’t look as if he’d even remembered that I was there anymore. He was simply playing his hands, notching up some wins, but mostly losing. He’d put ten grand on the table at the beginning of the game, and it was more than half gone.
I don’t know where he’d got the money. In recent years I'd got out of the habit of asking much about his financial affairs, and he never volunteered the information. Money just seemed to come his way at odd times, like a gust of wind, or autumn leaves. But it looked to me that he was going to be asking me for petrol money on the return journey.
Forty minutes on, he was down to two thousand. Then he was down to one. Then he made a couple of small wins and ratcheted it up to four thousand again. Then he played another hand, bet two thousand, and won again. Now he was at somewhere around ten thousand once more. I knew he could play cards. But I’d never seen him play cards before. Not like that, anyway. But here he was, looking like a consummate professional winning and losing with the best of them.
Except he wasn’t really one of them. They were mostly in suits and tweeds with clean shaven heads and jaws, and he was sat there in an old leather jacket with a pony tail and a goatee beard. But he was holding his own. That much was clear. On the one hand, he looked down at heel. A bum. One of the unwashed unemployed. But at the same time, he looked like he might have been an eccentric member of the aristocracy; perhaps the black sheep of one of the more obscure families. Howard Hughes’s bastard child even.
And clearly he had money. And clearly he was prepared to win. And lose.
And then it happened. I don’t know what the hell precipitated it, but the atmosphere changed perceptibly. One moment it was quiet murmuring and cigarette and cigar smoke and the rustling of suits and guys clearing their throats and ordering drinks, and then it went suddenly tense, and then it went silent, like the moment after a bomb blast before the screaming begins.
Oh-oh, I thought. Here it comes. I’m going to get the look at any second. Except that I didn’t get the look at all. Instead, Jack leaned forward and hunched himself over his cards and began looking around the table at the faces; the murderers, the bigger murderers, the News at Ten axemen, and the other guys who looked as if they were still working their way up to a good murder and still developing their basic serious assault techniques.
I checked the pot. It wasn’t big anymore. It was huge. It was stuffed with cash, a couple of watches, two sets of cars keys and a pair of false teeth. The teeth were evidently someone’s idea of joke, but the cash and the watches and the car keys were for real. Then I realised that just as Jack was staring at everyone else, everyone else was staring at Jack. Another guy might have been fazed, but Jack French just gazed back, cool, calm, and collected. I couldn’t see his face. I was standing behind him. But I could see his face reflected in their faces. I could see the anticipation. I could feel the blood pressure rising.
And then he said four words, and that raised the tension another couple of notches.
“I’m out of cash,” he said. Not softly. Not apologetically. Not with regret. But simply as a matter of fact, like telling a bird that the sky is blue.
I moved around to his left to try and catch his eye. And when that didn’t work, I moved around the other side. But he was still watching their eyes. No one moved. No one spoke. The universe ground to a halt.
“...but I do have this,” he said, dipping into his pocket for the keys to Geronimo.
* * *
Throughout the game I noticed some other guys milling around. At first I thought they were other players awaiting a seat. Then I thought they were waiters. Then I thought they were just more murderers looking for a little vicarious excitement. Then I understood that they were part of the management. Gofers. Guys who fetch and carry.
One of them came slowly around the table and smiled at Jack, hesitated, then gently reached over and grabbed the keys. The gofer jangled them once or twice as if to ensure that they were real. Then he looked at Jack. And then Jack looked at me. And then I tried to remember what the hell I had been told to say.
But I couldn’t.
I was frozen to the spot. Something was happening here, like being dead for a million years and then waking up in a new reality, like I need a little time to figure it out and work out all the angles. But my mind was virgin snow. Pure. Clean. Fresh. And vacant.
Jack was still looking at me, and that look was the look of a man with his head in a noose and a trap door beneath his feet. The guy with the key was looking at me as if he also knew that something was going on here, or about to go on, but he couldn’t quite work out the dynamic.
Then one by one Jack’s eyebrows crept up, and then the noose-around-the-neck-look changed to a look as hard as cobalt. I racked my brain for the right words. I knew that he’d been very specific. I knew now what he was up to and that he'd wanted to create exactly the right effect. I knew that this was my one line in this one-act play that was being staged for one night only, and that I’d fluffed it.
So I simply gazed back at him and said, “What?”
But it came out the way an idiot might say it. A kind of long, drawn out “Whuuuuuuuurttttt?”
Jack shook his mind, just enough for my heightened sensors to detect it, but probably not enough for anyone else in the room to spot.
Then he looked back at the gofer with the keys and said, “1926. Brough Superior SS100.”
The gofer nodded and promptly left the room with the keys. Everyone continued to stare at Jack, then relaxed one by one and put down their cards and began chatting like it was an ordinary pub and they were old friends and hadn’t seen each other for years.
But no one spoke to Jack.
He put down his cards and stretched and looked round at me. I heard his shoulder joints pop. I thought he’d be angry, but there was mostly sympathy in his eyes, like I had a brain injury and couldn’t help myself.
I mouthed at him; What’s going on?
But he simply looked back and smiled and slowly looked away. He called for another beer and a coke, but this time I had the beer. I needed it. My heart was thumping in my chest. I was confused, and yet at the same time I knew exactly what he was up to. He was gambling Geronimo against whatever was in the pot and trying to persuade this mob of British hoodlum aristocracy that outside in the car park, beside their Bentleys and Jags and Porches, was a genuine SS100 Brough Superior. I understood that he was trying to persuade them that that heap of rust and Halford's touch-up paint and assorted scrap metal, some of it from Bombay or Calcutta, was the real thing and worth a lot of money.
It was obvious that it wasn’t going to work. The guy with the keys would be out there in the car park checking it over. He’d be walking around it a few times, and then he’d shrug and saunter back inside, to an office maybe where a computer would be quietly buzzing. He’d sit at the desk, maybe talk to someone on a phone, and then hang up and start tapping on a keyboard. Then he’d punch in:
BROUGH SUPERIOR SS100 1926.
And then he’d start searching images. There would be lots of pictures. Hundreds. Some would show pristine bikes. Some would show old photographs of Lord Lawrence and George Brough himself. Some would show auction images, and that would lead the guy with the keys to another page and there he’d sit for a while reading and checking the prices.
Finally he’d pick up the phone and would make the call again. Then he’d talk, then he’d listen, then he’d hang up. Then he’d come back into the gaming room.
That evening, he walked straight over to the table drawing every pair of eyes in the room. Then he looked at Jack. Jack the new guy. The new guy whose credentials weren’t being taken for granted and needed higher approval. Jack who was cool. Jack who was unarmed. Then the gofer put the keys back in the pot and nodded.
Jack just sat there and sipped his coke and didn’t even pick up his cards. And I understood all over again how good he really was. The guy who’d once told an innocent passer by that his bike was a Harley Bonneville was now telling everyone that he had a genuine Brough Superior SS100 parked outside that he was willing to gamble on the biggest pot of money I'd ever seen. He didn’t say exactly how much the bike was worth. He didn’t have to. It was taken for granted that it was the real thing and valuable. It was been checked out by the gofer with the keys who, evidently, couldn’t tell a Brough from Yamaha. Why should he? You have to have experience of these things. That’s why all battleships look the same. That’s why all Chinamen look the same. That’s why, if you ask a Chinaman, all Englishmen look much the same.
The guy with the keys simply took it at face value; at Jack’s face value. And now the bike was in the pot, and now the hands around the table were folding. And suddenly there were only three players still carrying cards. They looked tough. They looked dangerous. They looked like they still had warrants out for them. They had to make a decision.
Then one folded his hand. Then another. And then the third capitulated. And then it was over.
Jack coolly checked his own cards, but he made not the slightest effort to reveal them. It didn’t matter what he had in his hand. He was the last man standing. They’d folded. He’d bluffed, or hadn’t bluffed. He’d just won.
It was a mystery.
* * *
An hour later we were out of there. Jack, in good grace, played a few more hands and was careful not to lose too much. In fact, he won a couple of hands and was down only a couple of grand.
Then he rucksacked the cash, the key fobs and the watches, but he gave back the false teeth. We said our terse goodbyes, said that we’d be back next month for another game, collected our lids from the guys at the doors and recovered the bikes.
Geronimo broke down on the way home, so we pushed it off the road and stuffed it behind a hedge for later recovery. Jack said it was safe enough. No one would steal a heap like that. I agreed and gave him a ride back home on the Beeza and kept an eye on the rear view mirror in case anyone was following.
But no one was.
Later, when we were back in Jack’s garage we counted the money. There was fifty seven thousand quid, the keys to two Beemers worth a minimum of thirty grand each, the keys to a Mercedes (possibly worth the same amount), and a couple of very expensive and heavy looking watches. Then, from his pocket, Jack took the keys to Geronimo and threw them on the bench. Like some kind of twisted trophy or something. A merit badge. Or a token of proof.
I looked at him and said, “Look, I’m sorry.”
“For forgetting my lines.”
Jack smiled and did that cheek-patting thing again.
“I knew you'd forget,” he said.
“I knew you'd forget. Then you'd look really shocked and worried. That's why it was so convincing.”
That made instant sense, and my face reddened. He'd given me a simple part to play knowing full-well that I'd screw it up, and he'd further figured that my screw up would look dangerously true. If I'd rehearsed my reaction for a thousand years, it wouldn't have been as convincing as those few seconds when the universe stopped.
“You’re a bastard,” I said.
“I know,” he agreed.
“Have you got any idea what might have happened to us if they’d found out that you’re full of crap and were trying to cheat them?”
“Sure do,” said Jack, stuffing the money, the watches and the key fobs back into the rucksack. Then he paused, reached in and grabbed a fob and tossed it at me. I snatched it from the air. Saw the Porsche logo. Hoped it was the red one. “But they didn’t, did they?”