Part 1 – The Sinner’s Game
There are seven deadly sins. One of them is Greed. That’s the one that got three players murdered at the Majestic Poker Room. I will tell you, and only you, the story of the poisonous poker murders on one condition. That you promise not to repeat it, not to anyone. There’s no sense in causing a panic in the poker room. The story begins –
“911. What is your emergency?”
“I’m calling from the Majestic’s Poker Room. I have an elderly man suffering severe breathing difficulty. I think it’s a heart attack. I need EMS here, now!”
“It’s OK, sir. The paramedics are already on their way to the Majestic. They were dispatched on a heart attack call less than a minute ago.”
“A minute ago? On their way? No, that’s not possible. This has just happened. Where are they on their way to? To the Poker Room?”
“No sir, to the UFA Sports Book.”
“Look, I don’t know anything about what’s going on at the Sports Book. I need EMS in the Poker Room. Now.”
“Do you want us to cancel the Sports Book call and re-route the paramedics to the Poker Room? . . . Sir . . . Sir, are you still there? . . . Sir?”
“O my God . . . Yes, I’m still here. It doesn’t matter anymore. He’s dead.”
Your name sir? I need your name.”
“My name is Talbot. I’m Chief of Poker Room Security.”
“And the name of the deceased?”
“Mudd. His name was Mississippi Mudd.”
Mississippi’s real name was Samuel Arthur Mudd. At the time of his death he was a Sinner. The Majestic Poker Room holds a monthly tournament for local players 65 years plus. Management calls it The Seniors Tournament. The players have named the game A Chip, A Chair and Medicare, The Blinds Leading The Blind, and The Limp In Limp Out Tournament. Nowadays the players call it The Sinners Game; they call themselves Sinners.
The Tournament, by whatever name it’s called, draws in older poker players from the Gulch and Strip poker rooms faster than a $5.49 early-bird special. These are the rules: The game is no-limit hold’em. The format is Freeze-out. There are ten tables. One hundred seats, each with an entry fee of $250 (plus $25 for the house) yielding $25,000 in player prize money, broken down $10,000/1st, $7,500/2nd, $5,000/3rd, $2,500/4th. Everybody else goes home empty-handed. The rounds start at $10-$20. Every round is twenty minutes, at which time the stakes double. The Sinners Tournament is a Goldilocks Game. Not too hot: No wild raises. Not too cold: No check and fold. Just right: Solid serious tournament poker.
I had been watching the Sinners Tournament on and off all night. It’s my job. I’m the Majestic’s Poker Cop, too young to be a retired LVPD Homicide Detective but too burned out to still be on the streets. Joey Rosenberg, the Poker Room’s Manager, pays me to walk around the room to watch the players and the money. At the moment the good players and the big money were on the Sinners Tournament’s Final Table. I had just completed my round of the Poker Room tables, five minutes in the Cheap Seats, ten minutes in the High Rent District, and returned to a place on the rail to watch the Sinners’ Final Table. A lot had changed in fifteen minutes. There were now four players left, the chip leader when I left was now gone, another player just busted out. The stakes had gone up. The stacks had gone down for most and up for some.
Then Mississippi died. A big hand had just ended. The four remaining players were laughing, kidding the one who had just busted out. There was a new chip leader. The dealer was pushing a huge pot. The other players were counting chips. Someone must have said something funny. Everyone except the dealer laughed again. Mississippi Mudd, sitting in the 5 seat, a big grin on his face, had just up-ended his drink when, without warning, he grabbed his throat and began struggling for air. I fought my way through the crowd to him. Mississippi had collapsed to the floor and was on his back writhing in airless agony. His hands, white-knuckled, were tight on his throat, as if he wanted to tear it open. His face was turning a sick-sour purple. His eyes were wide and wild with fear. The gulping-gasping-gurgling strangling sounds he was making were hideous. A Good Samaritan, a player from some other table, was trying, without luck, to perform CPR. There was a cellphone lying on the table. I called, and was arguing with 911, when, with one final convulsion, Mississippi took a last frenzied wheezing breath in, a last death rattle breath out, and lay still. The Good Sam closed Mississippi’s eyes. No more than a minute had passed. In that minute, my old friend, Samuel Arthur “Mississippi” Mudd had been unspeakably tortured to death. Someone sobbed. Someone else wretched. Another cursed. I opened my mouth to speak to the 911 operator. The words “O my God!” came out.
The Good Samaritan turned out to be a doctor. I have no answer to her question, “Did Mr. Mudd have any history of heart problems?” She calls the time of death 10:12 p.m., writing out a temporary account of his death for the Medical Examiner’s office. Joey orders the dealer to end the game and award the prize money. I cover Mississippi with my jacket.
EMS arrives. Their emergency call was now a “bag-and-drag.” The paramedics wrapped Mississippi up in a black rubberized zip-up body bag and placed him on a stretcher. “We’ll take him to the County Morgue pending notification of the next of kin.” They wheeled Mississippi out the Poker Room’s emergency exit. I followed. The exit leads out to the Majestic loading dock. There, standing next to another rubber-bagged corpse, waiting to go into a second ambulance, was Penelope Fallon, Chief of Majestic Casino Security. She doesn’t like me. I do everything I can to help that along.
(For those of you who need to know this, Red Penny is wearing a tight-across-everything, designer black leather dress. I am wearing a cheap wool suit whose jacket I have just removed from a corpse.)
The two stretchers stood side by side, as did we.
She arched one suspicious eyebrow, “What’s your excuse this time, Mr. Talbot, Russian Roulette?”
One cheap shot deserves another. “Penelope, I’d like you to meet Mr. Samuel “Mississippi” Mudd. He died only a couple of minutes ago of a heart attack. Too bad, he would have liked your rubber dress.”
Red Penny ignores my cheap shot. I try another. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your date?”
“This, Mr. Talbot, is James Francis Mulvaney. He collapsed and died at the Sports Book’s Sellers Window. I guess that’s what they mean by “Sudden Death.” The ticket in his hand puts the time of death at 10:10. The Book called EMS. He was dead when I got there. Looks like a heart attack, also.”
“Mulvaney? Jimmy the Gent? No! Let me see his face.”
Red Penny zips the people baggie down to show me his face. I frown. “Penelope, we’re in trouble.”
“Trouble? What trouble?” she asks.
“Mudd and Mulvaney were just playing at the same UFA poker table. Jimmy the Gent must have busted out of the Sinners Tournament no more than two hands before Mississippi Mudd collapsed. They are now both dead of sudden fatal attacks. Penelope, do you believe in coincidence?”
Red Penny is about to tell me what she believes when her pager goes off. She holds the little black box up, reads the message, frowns, “Heart attack at the Buffet.” Red Penny gives me a look that tells me she does not believe in coincidence. “You two!” She points at the nearest EMS paramedics. “Get another stretcher and come with me!” To me she says, “Talbot, you’d better come too. I have a sick feeling you’re going to know the victim.”
She’s right. Cheap Eddie Sherry lies in a rumpled heap, dead on the floor of the Buffet. Millie, the Buffet Hostess tells us: “He hands me his Poker Room Meal Comp. I turn my back to find him a table. I hear a glass break. When I turn around he’s dead on the floor. Not a word. Not a sound. One minute he’s standing there drinking. Next minute he’s dead.”
“What time did he collapse, Mil?” I ask. “Can you tell me what time?”
Millie walks to over to the register. Brings me back Cheap Eddie’s Comp Ticket which has been time stamped 10:14. Millie says, “Tell Joey to put his pencil away tonight.”
The paramedics have placed Cheap Eddie’s body on a stretcher. “You!” I point at one of the paramedics. “Do you know who I am?” I receive a surly, “I know who you were.””Good enough.” When you’re an LVPD Homicide Detective nobody talks back to you. When you’re an ex-Detective turned Poker Cop some people think they can get away with it. They’re wrong. “I want you to take him – I point to the late Eddie Sherry – and the two men waiting patiently for you at the loading dock to the Medical Examiners Office, right now, lights and sirens all the way. When you get there tell Doc Leib that Talbot needs side-by-side-by-side autopsies and full tox screens.”
“I can’t . . .”
“You can and you will. Go now. By the time you’re halfway there Detective Rook,” someone who he would not talk back to, “will be demanding the test results.”
He thinks it over, “Yes, sir.”
“You!” I point to the other paramedic. “Come with us.”
I grab Red Penny’s arm, “And where are we going?” she asks, removing herself from my grip.
“The Poker Room.”
“And I am going with you to the Poker Room why? . . .”
I turn to Red Penny. “Penelope, Mississippi, Jimmy, and Cheap Eddie, were not alone. There were three other players at the Sinners Tournament Final Table. Right now we’ve got three possible poisoning victims.”
“Poison?” she asks. “You’re jumping to an unwarranted conclusion. These could be what they look like, just heart attacks . . .”
“Penelope, the odds of three people having a heart attack, at the same place, at the same time, are 1 in 1,000,000,000.
“You’re making that number up.”
“I am, the actual number probably has lots more zeros. No, it’s poison.”
She starts to disagree. I ask a question: “Penelope, where was the last great mass poisoning?”
She stops and thinks, “Jonestown?”
“Right. Thanksgiving, 1978. The Reverend Jim Jones serves out cyanide-laced Kool Aid to 913 of his followers. Remember the pictures? They were all found dead within sight of the poisoned punch bowl.”
Red Penny frowns. “If it’s poison, where’s the punch bowl?”
“Come with me,” I tell her and walk to the entrance to the Majestic’s Poker Room. “Penelope, if you stand right here and look to the right what do you see?”
She looks to the right. “The Sports Book.”
“And if you look to the left?
She looks to the left. “The Buffet.”
“Which means the poisoned punchbowl is in the poker room.”
Red Penny won’t let go, “This could still be a coincidence. They were all elderly and . . .”
“No, I tell Red Penny. “We have three deaths, Jimmy the Gent 10:10, Mississippi at 10:12 and Cheap Eddie Sherry at 10:14. There are coincidence in life. Not in death. These people were poisoned. There are two common elements, they were at the same location, the Sinners Tournament Final Table, and they were all drinking alcohol.””All three?”
“Yes. I watched Mississippi finish a drink just before he died. That drink had to come from?
“The Poker Room Bar.” She answers. “That’s one.”
“Cheap Eddie Sherry was alive and well at 10:12 when Mississippi died. Game Over. He picks up his freebie drink, compliments of the Poker Room, and takes it to the Buffet, for his freebie dinner, also compliments of the Poker Room. They didn’t call him “Cheap” for nothing. That’s why he’s lying dead next to a broken glass.”
“That’s two,” says Red Penny, “What about Mr. Mulvaney? I was there. There was no drink anywhere around him.”
“James Francis Mulvaney was County Clare Irish. He never gambled, or did anything else, without a drink.” Penelope Fallon, whose red hair, green eyes, and pale freckled skin screams “Ireland Forever!” gives me a Pug ma hohn look. I ignore this. “He must have busted out a previous hand and took his drink into the Sports Book. He wouldn’t have taken it with him to the betting window, he would have left it at his chair. Which means, Penelope, that all three of our victims got their poisoned Kool-Aid from . . .”
“The Poker Room Bar.”
“So,” I tell her, “the good news is that the poisoned punch bowl is located in the Poker Room.”
“And the bad news?”
“Look around. It’s Friday night in the Majestic Poker Room. There are two hundred plus poker players sitting at thirty full tables and most, if not all of them, are drinking.”
We find Joey Rosenberg at the cage. I quietly tell him, “The drinks at the Sinners Tournament’s Final Table may have been poisoned. I don’t know if the poisoning was limited to that table or . . .” I motion toward the crowded room. “How can we stop everybody from drinking.” Red Penny adds, “Without causing a panic.”
Joey looks down at his own half-finished drink, sighs, turns around and in his loudest voice announces, “Your attention please! We’ve just noticed that some of our glasses . . .” Joey raises his own half-filled glass “. . . are less than clean. The Poker Room’s dishwasher is broken . . . or maybe he’s drunk.” Everybody laughs. “Please no more drinking from these glasses. I’m sending the wait staff to remove them from your tables. New drinks will be coming in from the Sports Book Bar. Sorry for the inconvenience. Now, let’s all get back to the games.” All over the poker room “less than clean” drink glasses are pushed away. Joey smiles at Red Penny and I walk off to help collect the “less than clean” glasses.
I turn to Red Penny – the casino is her jurisdiction, the poker room is mine. “Penelope, I’m going to need your help. This is already a mess and could get a lot messier. We’re going to have to call a cease-fire.” She nods, after thinking it over, it’s going to be a short cease-fire. “I’m going to search for the surviving Sinners. Will you close the bar and hold the bartender and waitresses for questioning?” She nods and heads towards the back of the room. I get a lucky break: The three surviving Sinners are all seated in ring games. I ask the three to go to Joey’s office where I have already sent the paramedic with instructions to watch them for any signs of poisoning.