The Scrimshaw Mermaid

Jake Winters sat at a rickety card table in the Crystal Sandwich Shop. A green tablecloth hid its gouged and pitted surface from sight, but the impressions could be felt through the emerald fabric. The air was laden with a thick smog of cigar and cigarette emissions which were beginning to make Jake’s eyes burn. Harold McGuire, one of the Crystal’s owners and chief bootleggers must have also felt his own ocular orbits beginning to dry. From his place behind the counter, he produced a heavy black fan and switched it on. The greasy dust coated blades awakened with a heavy buzz, laboriously pushing the smoky air towards the closed, yet drafty front entrance. Outside, the street lamps hit Frankie, silhouetting his hulking figure through the white curtains covering the speakeasy’s glass front door. The ethereal sight of the large bouncer reminded Jake that this was a private poker game.

Inside there were five other tables like the one at which Jake now found himself seated, all of which held four players and a stony-faced dealer. Each player was connected to the San Francisco mob in some way, everyone with the exception of Jake.

Jake had rolled into town from upstate New York after escaping a nasty bookie he’d ripped off at the Yonkers Raceway. Now only a week after arriving in the Bay Area, he found himself at the heart of the Saturday night poker game hosted by San Francisco most notorious up and coming crime lord, Francesco Lanza. Jake had made fast friends with Dutch White, the Crystal’s other owner at an underground cockfight out in Dogpatch the night before. Having bought the paunchy bootlegger several rounds of bathtub gin fizzes, Dutch had vouched for Jake, and gotten him into the game. Preserving the unreadable mask on his face, Jake eyed the table’s other players.

To his immediate right, Samuel “Sammy” Mazzaro’s giant figure, which reminded Jake of a bull ready to charge, sat hunched into a shaky folding chair, most likely a match to the rickety card table. The unfortunate chair creaked and squealed every time Sammy shifted, which was more often when his hand was good. It wasn’t creaking now, Jake mentally noted. Sammy would most likely fold after the first anti. In addition to the lack of protest emanating from Sammy’s chair, large saucers of yellow-tinted sweat had begun to bleed down the sides of his massive white undershirt. Sammy had removed the pale blue button up with matching vest a few hands earlier, the pressure of consecutive losses beginning to show. Jake smiled inwardly. He loved playing against chumps who couldn’t hold with water at the table. It was a nice confidence boost, but not much of a challenge. He especially loved it when they were big guys like Sammy; they were easier to outrun than the wiry ones.

On Jake’s left was Mike Iannuzzi, a rugged and swarthy thug who sported a deep, red scar from temple to chin, just skirting the edge of his left eye. Rumors floated as to where his pockmarked face had acquired this distinguishing marker. Some said it was from a knife fight that gained him entry into the mob, others insisted he had been slashed by a jealous husband as he tried to escape through the couple’s bedroom window. A few whispered it had been a present from his father when Mike had failed to return with twenty grand worth of high-quality gin from France, having lost the shipment to the fuzz before it could be collected from the docks. Jake only knowing Mike from reputation and from the last three hours at the table would bet on the latter. If anything were true about Mike, it was that he was one cold son of a bitch. As if to compensate for either his upbringing or the scar that had caused it, Mike dressed impeccably. His suite cost at least three hundred large if it cost a dime, and his alligator shoes carried a sheen that could reflect a visage with scaly integrity.

Finally, across from Jake, leaning back in his chair was the supremely frightening Tony Lanza, the younger brother of Francesco Lanza. Much like Mike, it was easy to see Tony had seen his share of murder, torture, and any number of other morally reprehensible acts. Not to be out dressed by Mike, Tony took his ensemble to the next level. His polished gray suit, which looked as if it had been hand tailored by angels, seemed more appropriate for a weekend in Monaco to dine with the king rather than an underground poker game in a Tenderloin speakeasy.

Unlike Sammy, whose cards were practically scrawled across his face, it had take Jake a few hands to get a feel for Mike, and then a few more to unlock the enigma that was Tony. Neither gave away their hands by shifting their well-built frames in creaky chairs or by sucking on their teeth like other players Jake had encountered over the years. Their tells were a little harder to spot.

Mike would silently pucker his lips behind his hand which he held close to his face, elbows braced on the tabletop. Jake suspected this was due to Mike’s knowledge of his tell, so in an attempt to try and hide it, he masked his mouth with his cards. Yet, this surreptitious pucker was accompanied by something that Jake would bet that Mike had no conscious knowledge of; after the pucker, Mike would swallow. Not an audible gulp, but just enough to make his ears wiggle a hasty jig. When Jake had noticed the pattern, he gritted his teeth against a smile and raised the pot.

Tony was a bit stealthier and great at bluffing. He would give a series of fake tells, trying to manipulate his opponents into either folding or anteing up, whichever served him best. The problem was that Tony never strayed from his faux tells; an ear tug here, a well manicured hand smoothing his perfectly pomaded coif there, or a subtle click of his forked tongue when things were looking really good. This made sorting out fact from fiction a bit trickier for Jake, but after four hands, he was well tuned into Tony’s strategy.

At only twenty-one, Jake had under his belt an impressive array of talents, some he had taken to a master level. He was great at the fast con like three-card Monte, taking marks on the street for their pocket change. If necessary he could pull a longer con, like romancing wealthy widows out of their knickers as well as their bank accounts. Growing up on the streets of Dublin in the 1910s had made Jake a resourceful survivor. It also didn’t hurt that his dark hair, bright blue eyes, and lean frame made him exceedingly attractive. People wanted to trust Jake from the moment they met him. It was funny how beautiful people got away with more than the unfortunate looking. As a result, these ruses tended to make Jake feel a bit low afterward. Duping the unsuspecting and preying on the lonely didn’t sit well with him. He preferred a worthy opponent, someone more greedy and unscrupulous than himself, and this band of murderous gangsters was the kind of mark that made Jake’s heat light and carefree. No, there would be no sleep lost after taking these chumps for all they had.

As far as tells went, Jake had only one, and it didn’t take place until the end of a hand, and only when he took the pot. After clearing the table of his winnings, Jake would pat the breast pocket of his vest where his lucky charm was kept.

“Why are you always touching your pocket?” Tony’s voice had a smoothness to it that sent Jake’s con senses into the red. He knew a fellow shit talker when he met one. “Do you have a love token from some virgin back home in there?” The query was followed by a seemingly friendly smile, but if one looked closer, they would see a wolf-like quality to the corners of Tony’s mouth.

Jake didn’t immediately look up from organizing his chips, but instead let the fertile pause float on a molt of smoky air. “Virgins? Naw, I tend to like my women a bit of seasoned if you know what I mean.” Jake’s lilting Irish accent was at odds with the predator-glazed grin he returned. “It’s just a bit o’luck I carry with me.” Jake tweezed his index and middle fingers into the narrow vest pocket to retrieve a thin, circular bit of whale bone scrimshawed with the intricate image of a mermaid. Her own fine contours followed the outside curve on the button-like object. With a flick of his wrist, Jake flipped the bone made coin to Tony, who plucked it easily from the air.

Tony inspected the craftsmanship for a minute and gave the fine fishy beauty a longing rub with his thumb. “Very nice, but not really to my tastes. I like my dames to be all legs.” Tony place the carving on the table and pushed it over to Jake.

“I grew up with stories of women in the skins of seals called selkies. Every so often they would come to shore and shed their seal skin to reveal the most beautiful woman man ever set eyes upon. So what I see here is potential,” Jake said holding the bone aloft. This gained a chuckle from the other men at the table.

“You may see potential. I see a fish,” Mike grinned, elbowing the dealer playfully, and motioned to Harold behind the Crystal’s counter for another whiskey. The dealer ignored Mike and continued shuffling unperturbed.

Jake noted that this was Mike’s third tumbler of whiskey on the rocks. Obligingly, Jake took a calculated sip from his own watery drink. Better to look like you’re indulging than to broadcast your sobriety. Knowing better than to get hammered while at work, Jake had learned to bulk up on bread before entering a job where drinking would be necessary. This allowed him to drink moderately in order to remain under the radar for as long as possible while remaining as sober a possible. People got sloppy when they were drunk, and Jake wasn’t sloppy.

As the dealer began to divvy out the next hand, Jake replace the bone mermaid in her cozy pocket home where she snuggled down to better hear Jake’s heartbeat.

Carved back in 1820 from a piece of sperm whale bone, the mermaid had been born on a moonless and starry evening while her creator floated on a whaler among the blood and flesh discarded from the day’s catch. The whale she’d emerged from had been a fierce creature, almost capsizing the vessel, and taking four crewmen down with it. However, the mermaid didn’t remember the rage and pain from which the wale had departed this world. She was born of different stuff. The young sailor who had carved her had been thinking of his blushing bride back home in New York. Under the watchful magic of the stars, the mermaid had come to life, infusing in her one of the most powerful charms; the lust of infatuation.

While the talented young sailor etched the beautiful mermaid into the smooth whalebone, his heart was filled with longing for his sweet bride. You see, the young sailor had only met his bride the week before he married her. They had been in each other presence a total of two weeks. Both being of the Catholic persuasion, they felt it necessary to marry before tasting the carnal fruit. It didn’t hurt that both were romantics and only seventeen. Lust and infatuation go together like Belgium waffles and Sunday morning, and no one is more lustful than teenagers. As the sailor carved his mystical lady of the sea, his thoughts turned toward the months he would away from his beautiful girl, chasing whales for oil, and the thought almost drove him crazy. Yes, infatuation seeped into the porous calcium of the whalebone like water into a towel.

Over the years, the fetching mermaid bounced from hand to hand. First it bounced right into the pudgy digits of the sailor’s bouncing baby boy who was created by the young couple on their wedding night. This babe would grow to become a sailor himself, but instead of chasing whales, he would travel by merchant ship to the far off shores of Africa and India, trading in spices and silks. It was on one such journey that the crew’s water supply became infested with malaria carrying mosquitoes. The only humans untouched by the disease were the ten or so slaves the captain kept around to do the heavy lifting. In a twist of poetic justice, the ex-slaves stripped the dead sailors of the treasurers, threw their bodies overboard, and headed back to Africa. It was here that the mermaid bounced into the hands of Darcaue.

Before Darcaue had been stolen into slavery, he’d been a highly revered shaman to his people. Much like the stars and the power of desire the young sailor imparted on the mermaid the night the she was carved, Darcaue’s own magic began to seep into the bone as he held and rubbed it. From where the stars and sailor had left off with her, Darcaue breathed consciousness into the mermaid, and with it a will.

It was this very will that had bounced her into the vest pocket of Jake two years ago. For the last hundred years, the mermaid had transverses the globe countless times, moving from traveler to traveler until she found one she liked enough to bring a little luck too. This newly found consciousness awakened something else the stars had imparted that moonless night. There’s a funny thing about the stars; they see everything from their high perch above the earth. They see backward as well as forward. They see all time as it floats by in little, nearly weightless particles of light. Along with infusing the infatuation the young sailor felt, some of this starry foresight had too trickled into the mermaid, which is where the luck came from.

The mermaid had tired of her previous owner, one Steven Press. He had once been an impetuous creature, with a narrow waist and well-defined biceps. But as his time with the mermaid lengthened, he became lazy, cocky, and fat. He had started to take his lucky charm for granted, and rarely held her or gazed into her beautiful face. Deciding it was time to move on, she began to look for a suitable replacement. Enter Jake. The mermaid had liked him the moment she laid her bone white eyes on his lovely young face. From that moment, she had started steering her owner to make bad bets at the table while influencing Jake to make good ones. After losing everything, he placed the mermaid into the pot, stating that the simple piece of scrimshaw was a bonafide lucky charm and the most important thing in the world to him.

“Doesn’t seem too lucky at the moment,” Archie, the oldest gambler at the table laughed with a picket fence for grin. The other players at the table agreed, a little put off by Steven’s ante. Jake on the other hand was more interested in Steven’s confident behavior. For the last hour he’d been losing steadily, and had never once begun to sweat. Even as he sat there, completely out of cash, into some of the players for several hundred dollars, and forking over his “lucky charm,” he still held onto the deep optimism that he would win. Jake figured that either the scrimshaw was really lucky, or Steven truly believed it was. Either way, Steven was sure he would win the hand.

After a mild debate, the players agreed to allow Steven to enter the pot with his mermaid, but if he didn’t win, he would have to settle up best he could, after all, this was just a friendly game.

We all know how this story ends. Steven Press lost that last game to Jake who held a royal flush, his best hand of the evening. As Jake scooped his winning towards where he sat, his finger brushed the bone mermaid. The magical charm threw an electric zing up his hand, through his arm, and directly into his cerebellum where human intuition is housed. Here the zing waded through star stuff and primordial ooze, amplifying Jake’s already finely honed hunch machine.

Picking up the silver dollar sized bone, Jake studied it with mystified interest. “You know Steven, I think you might just be right about this old gal. I do believe she may be lucky.” Beaming his most winning smile into Steven’s stricken face, Jake placed his new prized possession into his vest pocket, collected his winnings, and knowing that the game was over for him, exited the smoky basement for home.

That had been two years ago, and life had actually been pretty smooth since winning his fishy lady. A new and very helpful little voice had emerged since she had taken up residence in his pocket. Jake took the mermaid everywhere with him and tended to check to make sure her presence was still with him by giving his pocket a gusty rub, something the mermaid loved.

By this time in the game, Jake was up almost eight hundred dollars, and was working out how to strategically make his exit without rising the ire of his opponents who were bend on winning back their blood money. He was running through scenario number three when an urge to get down on the floor set upon him. Bewildered by this feeling, he resisted, and instead refocused on extricating himself from The Crystal Sandwich. A moment later, the pocket where the mermaid now sat alert, began to burn as if one of the many lit cigarettes dangling precariously from any number of thin lipped mobsters had somehow dropped into his pocket and was currently blistering his chest.

Jake hit the pocked in an attempt to assuage the heat, but it only fanned the flames. Deftly reaching into the narrow pouch, he grabbed the curiously burning bone disc and quickly dropped it on the floor as it singed his fingers. Perplexed, Jake bent to better look at his miraculously burning scrimshaw as it lay on the worn wood floor. The moment Jake’s head fell below the lower lip of the Crystal’s large, plate glass windows, a tempest of bullets exploded through the speakeasy’s storefront, sending shrapnel rocketing in every direction.

Being halfway to the floor already made throwing himself the last few feet easy to manage. Jake lie there, prone on the splintery floor, his head defensively covered with his arms as bits of glass, plaster, brick, bone, and blood rained down upon him.

As quickly as it had begun, the near deafening onslaught of semi-automatic weapons stopped their deadly rat-a-tat. What followed was a quite so thick that the screeching ties coming from the gunmen as they fled the scene barely scratched the surface.

Nearly a full minute slid by into oblivion before Jake could manage to untense his fright-rigid muscles and move. Slowly he lifted his head, and heard the tinkle of glass as it trickled from his dark hair onto the floor. The already smoky room was now hazy with plaster and brick dust, but the carnage was easy to see.

The drive by shooting had caught the gamblers of the Crystal unaware. Not one mobster had had time to return fire, although several large, pasta swollen corpses managed to pull their guns from their various hiding places before being ripped asunder by hundreds of bullets.

Slowly Jake pushed himself up and caught Tony’s vacant stare. From what Jake could see in the now dimly lit shop, many of the hanging lamps had been destroyed in the shooting, Tony had taken a single shot to the back of his head. There didn’t appear to be an exit wound anywhere Jake could see, and from the expression on Tony’s face, he had no idea he was dead. Mike and Sammy were a little worse off.

Mike had taken several shots to the face and head. Jake wouldn’t haven’t even know who he was if it hadn’t been for the alligator wingtips. Their immaculate sheen now filmy with dust. Sammy’s bulking frame slumped back in the chair he’d occupied all night. His once sweat-stained undershirt was now bathed in crimson from about fifteen of so bullet holes in his chest.

Nothing in the room moved save for the settling dust and Jake who made a tight pirouette as he assessed the situation. He still didn’t hear sirens, which surprised him a little. Gathering his wits, Jake stooped, and found the mermaid right where he’d dropped her less than five minutes before. She no longer gave off an unnatural heat, and Jake now wondered if she had ever been hot at all. He’d heard of hypnotists convincing people through mere suggestion to drink vinegar like water, or to be immune to pain. Could the reverse be possible? Could the impulse he’d had to get down on the floor come from the mermaid, and when that didn’t work, she made it feel like his pocket was on fire, ultimately causing him to stoop and miss being shot? However it might have happened, the mermaid had saved his life again, just like she had in New York. Giving her an appreciative rub for saving his neck once again, he pocketed his charm, and began to look for something he might use to haul the massive amounts of loose cash away in.

Looking behind the bar, Jake found old Harold McGuire’s body. Having actually like the man, Jake closed the old bootlegger’s eyes. Next to Harold’s quickly cooling corpse was a stack of brown paper sandwich bags. Being a “sandwich shop” it made sense that Harold would keep a few items around to make the place look a little more legitimate. Jake grabbed a handful, and began to stuff as much cash in them as he could manage. It was definitely time to leave town. While Frisco had been great, almost dying in a gang war was not his idea of fun.

By the time police sirens could be heard bouncing through the foggy air, Jake had managed to gather most of the cash that had been dispersed by the gunfire. Much more lay under tables or mired in sticky pools of blood, but Jake wasn’t completely greedy. He took only what he needed to put this brumous city in the rear view.

Remembering to grab his jacket and hat before exiting through the back ally, Jake made his way into the damp night, giving his pocket an appreciative pat.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: