The pistol was an old Tokarev, complete with the star on the handle and no safety, a piece of surplus equipment that had probably been killing people in France’s underworld since World War II. Everyone, including me and the other casino employees, stopped dead, the jabbering of the crowd going quiet in a rush of inhalation as Carlu pointed the pistol at the other gambler.
The other gambler actually had the audacity to stand there and smile, a cavalier half-grin shining through his beard. But I could see the sweat running down the back of his neck. Carlu said something out of the side of his mouth and several of his heavies started throttling the two men with him. Two descended on the big guy, one holding him from behind by the arms while the other landed body blows from the front, another team smacking the thin man around. The eyes of both men filled with impotent anger, unwilling to fight back while the Beard was under the threat of death.
Some part of me noted that the smarter people in the crowd began to use the cover of the physical violence to quietly move away. The rest of the fools stood rooted in place, just like me. I realized that Carlu was saying something to the Beard, but it was in a language I couldn’t understand, not French or Russian, but something else.
The initial panic began to recede from me, replaced by a disassociated shock. I marveled at the possibility that Carlu might actually shoot, here, in the casino, in front of all these people. Although I didn’t know exactly what they would be, I imagined that the consequences would be dire. Staring at the pistol my mind couldn’t quite function enough to conjure up what those consequences might be but some gremlin in the back of my brain began to speak with a lacquered tongue, whispering about the resulting loss of business or official sanction. It’s honeyed tone spoke of the promise of destruction, joyful at the idea the casino might burn to the ground. Not even Carlu could get away with this.
The spell was broken by Carlu reaching forward to crack the Beard on the head with the Tokarev. Being shorter he had to reach up so he didn’t have the leverage to land much of a blow, but it was enough to cause the other man to bend at the waist. Carlu grabbed him by the back of his collar and began to wrangle him towards the exit. To my horror I realized he was taking the Beard to the palatial and very public front entrance.
For a brief moment I considered stepping in front of Carlu and trying to direct him towards one of the many side exits. Even with the gremlin whispering about sweet destruction the man in the driver’s seat wanted to do his job. But then I thought about the pistol and decided Carlu knew exactly what he was doing. Trying to divert him, even with everyone’s best interests in mind, would probably just get me shot.
Instead I followed him out. Carlu and his group of apes beat on Beard and his crew, ushering them out in a parade of domination and submission. Behind me I heard the crowd collectively release its breath and break for the other room’s exits (even though they’d probably be safer staying where they were now).
Carlu was making a show of it, pushing the Beard out in front of him, kicking him in the ass, grabbing him by the neck again. He had stopped waving the pistol around but made sure that anyone they passed by saw his treatment of the bigger man. Without the threat of the pistol the crowds parted for them with the occasional gasp or disapproving glare from someone aghast at such unseemly behavior. I followed in the wake of Carlu’s crew, a reassuring institutional presence that kept anyone from feeling a need to call for the police.
Being out in front, under the blazing lights of the casino’s marquee didn’t change Carlu’s behavior. He tossed Beard down the short flight of steps to the wide sidewalk that ran between the casino and the promenade that separates it from Mediterranean. I could feel the ocean air breeze make its way all the way across the promenade, through the traffic that darted over multiple lanes, over the wide pedestrian walkways, and finally to my grateful, over-heated face. For a moment, Carlu shouting indecipherable threats at the Beard in Corsican seemed to be happening very far away.
The Beard had clearly been roughed up before. He took his roll down the stairs in a way way to minimize physical damage, absorbing it into his shoulders rather than his head or neck. The early spring air guaranteed that the damp of the sidewalk stuck to him, along with whatever detritus he rolled through. But he came up with that cavalier half-grin on his face and waved to Carlu as if he had shown to the door by a genteel host. I could see the flint in his eyes, though, the hard anger that promised future retribution. I had to admire his self-control.
His boys didn’t manage so well. While the big guy was too large to be thrown down he lost whatever dignity he might have retained in this by turning to scream obscenities after being released. He only succeeded in drawing the attention of passersby that might have otherwise ignored the entire spectacle.
The other’s thin frame didn’t resist the launch down the stairs as well Brick and didn’t manage it as well as his boss. He came up with blood on his face and joined his buddy in screaming. The weakest of the three, I took note.
A moment later a long, sleek sedan, resplendent in the reflective lights of the casino, shuttled up in a cloud of quiet German engineering. With another flash of his white teeth, a smile brittle and promising requital, Beard stepped into the car and disappeared behind opaque glass.
Carlu stood at the top of the casino’s stairs, arms akimbo, his own grin wide and victorious. His entourage joined in the glow of their bosses triumph until one of them leaned forward to whisper something in the shorter man’s ear. Reminded that he had just committed a rather public crime Carlu’s facial expression changed, looking as someone who had just remembered a soon-to-be missed appointment. Perhaps, it said, it was time to leave. With that, Carlu began to walk away from the casino, all of his boys following in his wake. He didn’t have to go far before another car pulled up and he stepped into it.
The casino was already abuzz with what had just happened and the rumors of what might have caused it. Those who hadn’t seen the pistol expressed skepticism of its existence, that disbelief growing with each retelling of the story. This was only bolstered by the casino staff acting as if nothing had happened at all.
The scuttlebutt eventually reached back into the dungeon of the slot machines. Listening while maintaining the same disinterested charade as the rest of the staff, I learned Beard’s name was Marek Mitnick. Not surprisingly, he was another rumored crime boss.
Now I had a name and a face of the guy who had sicced Balaclava on me. So what did he want with me?