The tournament was not offering the kind of money that would change the lives of any of the four high stakes players who had arrived in Barcelona to play at Antonio Molina’s apartment. That didn’t matter to any of them, however. Each of them was hunting for a crucial piece of information that would allow them to find out the truth. Carlos, Mo, Sofia, and Sam all searched for a different truth. As arranged, they all gathered after registering for the event. 

“So here we all are,” announced Mo, who appeared nervous. The inside of Casino Barcelona wasn’t just bright but accentuated with lights to enhance the glow of the interior design. It was a stunning casino, and it never harmed its reputation that both tournaments and cash games were regularly full.

Sam’s covert knowledge of Mo’s earlier phone conversation changed everything, but Sam revealed nothing to the other three. When Sofia asked on the way in, Sam told her a white lie claiming Mo revealed ‘nothing concrete’. The last thing he wanted to do was to reveal his hand too early. Sofia had been reluctant to say much about her discussion with Mo outside of the police station. Did Sam believe her? He wasn’t sure. Maybe Mo was bribing Garcia to keep himself out of trouble for killing Felix Jackson.  

“Have any of you heard from Antonio?” Sam asked. No one had. 

“Why would we hear?” asked Carlos. “That drawing is lost, and a man was killed in his house. They’ll be interrogating him.”

“How long do fingerprints take to come back?” asked Mo. 

“Too long,” said Sofia. “I lost my brother in the war and we found out it had taken days to confirm it. He died in an explosion, and they didn’t have his prints. They told me that would have changed, made it much easier.” 

“I never knew that, Sofia,” Sam said. There was an intimacy to his tone that the others didn’t fail to notice. 

“If Antonio managed to steal the drawing, I would not be surprised,” said Carlos. “But how did he make his way around the table past three people and put a knife in this man’s neck?

It was then the group, was distracted by a new player coming up the stairs. A player none of them had expected – Detective Garcia. 

“Good evening. I see that this tournament is more than popular this evening. I’m delighted to be here with you all.” 

Garcia looked very different from his appearance during the day. He still wore a suit, but it was far more casual than his police one. Somehow, Sam thought it made him even more threatening. 

“Why are you here, Detective? Have you arrested Antonio?” asked Sofia. 

“There is not quite enough information in our possession yet,” Garcia said cryptically. “But we hope to make an arrest very soon. Maybe the killer is in this room rather than at the police station, no?” Garcia asked. Then he wandered off to find his table.

“A killer, a detective, and a game of poker? Sounds like my kind of night,” said Carlos, grinning at the rest of the group. Sam thought it odd. Maybe the Spanish player with an aggressive style at the felt acted the same in real life. Just how hard had Felix Jackson made his brother’s life? Carlos had been seated when the group turned around from the empty Picasso plinth to glimpse Felix Jackson with a knife in his neck. Could Carlos have stabbed the American and then taken his seat again? It would have been incredibly risky, but it was possible. The theft of the drawing was the perfect distraction, and he was the only person who hadn’t joined Antonio when he noticed it was missing. 

The four players took their seats in the tournament, which was moderately full for a midweek night in Central Barcelona. Only two of them shared the same felt, as Mo and Sofia moved to the same table. They sat at opposite ends but maintained a friendly discourse as play got underway. 

Carlos was a few yards away with his back to the table where Sofia and Mo sat. The young, aggressive Spaniard started off how he played high-stakes cash games, by bullying others and stealing pots. He put relentless pressure on his opponents in virtually every hand. 

Carlos was facing Sam’s table, he was sharing the felt with someone Carlos recognized from the previous night. It took him an orbit to recognize the waitress from Antonio’s. Once he realized who it was, he watched her intently. 

She could only have been around 20 years old, but she played with a fearless nature and strategic maturity that belied her years. Raising pots that Sam led out, she was unafraid of playing at the edge of variance. So much so that when Sam engaged her in conversation, she was overly confident after winning several pots. 

“You play here every week?” asked Sam. 

“I play here most nights. You don’t, though. Game a bit too cheap for you?”

“I’m Sam,” he said, extending his hand. “But you knew that already, didn’t you?”

“I thought they called you NASA,” she said with a smile. “I’m Maria Rodriguez. You met me at Antonio’s last night, but I play here more than I serve drinks there.”

“I can believe it the way you handle those chips,” said Sam. Maria was riffling the chips by separating two stacks, then bringing them together with her fingers with practiced ease.

“I’m glad you weren’t playing in last night’s game. I might not have been winning. You play high stakes?”

“This is the highest I go, in the casino anyway. I love this place. I came to Barcelona to study artwork at University, but I’ve been coming here ever since I arrived. I play online too, sometimes a bit bigger. You play online?” she asked with a smile. 

“No. I like to look in the eyes of the people I’m playing. I’ll head back to the States one day, play in the World Series of Poker Main Event…maybe. But the cash games here have been too good.”

“Maybe you should qualify online for it. I might see you there. It’ll cost me a few cents as you Americans say. You can buy in for $10,000, I’ll win an online event for less than $100.”

Sam nodded and smiled, but it died on his lips, the smile never reaching his eyes. The peculiarity of being back at a poker table 24 hours after a man had died across the felt was hitting him. 

“You know, Maria, last night was the first time I’ve ever left a poker table – without busting – when I didn’t want to walk away.”

“It must have been horrible.”

“That and the overnight stay in Barcelona police station. Did the police speak with you?”

“They stopped me after you were all taken away and spoke with me, but I was on CCTV; Antonio has cameras in the foyer and outside, just not inside his drawing room. Well, you know…”

The irony of Maria calling it the drawing room when the absence of the drawing had been what triggered the events, was the most revealing line. To Sam, it made him think that she still had the drawing on her mind. But a man was dead. Was that natural? 

“I still can’t believe it,” he said. “One minute I’m playing the game, the next Antonio is showing us that his priceless piece of artwork has disappeared. I’d never heard him so upset; you must have heard him from outside. But the security guard came running in, didn’t he?”

“Miguel? Yes, he passed me on the stairs. I was in the kitchen Antonio has in his apartment. Antonio had texted through an order for food. Miguel ran straight into the room. He told me to wait outside the room in case there was trouble. It was so upsetting. I didn’t know the man, but to die like that…” 

She tailed off. They stopped talking for a time. There was nothing Sam could say that would shake Maria’s thoughts of the same moment he was replaying in his mind. Turning to see Felix Jackson with a knife in his neck, the victim bleeding out onto the ornate poker table, tainting its wooden, multi-layered leaf designed base and stunning felt.  He should have been surveying the whole scene and the placement of the people involved. How close was Antonio to the drawing – could he have dropped it? What about Sofia? She was like a wraith, out of her seat and by Sam’s side in seconds, but was there an ulterior motive? 

And what of Mohammed? He was chatting amiably with Sofia as far as Sam could see. They both knew about his business dealings with the victim. He was Felix Jackson’s only known enemy at the felt.

Just as Sam thought of the fourth and final player among their number, he heard his voice. Carlos leaped from his seat and jabbed a finger at the young man next to the dealer. 

“You! I know you, and I see what you are doing! You were looking at my cards.”

The young man also jumped out of his seat, shouting angrily back. 

“We all know what you did! You killed that man! Everyone knows it. You hate him from what he did to your brother. Why don’t you confess?” 

Carlos rose fully as he bore over the young man from two feet away. 

“You say one more word and I swear, I kill you right here in the casino. You will die right here!”

The action immediately stopped as the poker room turned as one to see the commotion. It was at that moment Antonio Molina walked up to Sam’s table. He spoke not only to Sam but loud enough so that the whole room could hear him. 

“Is late registration over? This looks like a fun game to play.”

Behind Antonio, a trio of Spanish policemen was arrowing towards the tables, looking for someone. Detective Garcia chose that moment and stood from his seat with a smile, producing a pair of handcuffs from his belt. 

They were obviously there to arrest someone… But who?

Chapter 6                                  Chapter 8

About the Author: Paul Seaton has written about poker for over 10 years, interviewing some of the best players ever to play the game such as Daniel Negreanu, Johnny Chan and Phil Hellmuth. Over the years, Paul has reported live from tournaments such as the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and the European Poker Tour. He has also written for other poker brands where he was Head of Media, as well as BLUFF magazine, where he was Editor.

This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental.