Jack Waters by Scott Adlerberg is a historical thriller set in 1904 about an American guy from New Orleans—a poker player and fugitive murderer—who joins a Caribbean island revolution for utterly non-political reasons. He has his own reasons for joining the rebellion, based on revenge against someone high up in the country (available January 17, 2018).
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It's 1904, and Jack Waters lives in New Orleans. He earns his money by playing poker. Through his gambling skill, he has a comfortable life, but one day he kills a man he catches cheating against him. On the run, he flees Louisiana, and he moves to an island in the Caribbean. It seems he will be able to resume his poker playing life, but he runs into problems with the island's rich and powerful. Frustrated, he joins a rebellion against the government. But his reason for joining the revolutionaries has nothing to do with politics. He has his own reason for joining the rebellion, based on revenge against someone high up in the country.
A story about a fanatical quest for justice, Jack Waters is a historical revenge tale that moves with the speed of a thriller.
THE FIRST DEBT
Around the turn of the nineteenth century, near the City of New Orleans, there lived a man named Jack Waters. Throughout Louisiana, among gamblers, he had a reputation. His specialty was poker. He liked draw poker and five card stud, and his skill was such that he won more often than he lost. Jack Waters loved the challenge and excitement of gambling, but his deep blue eyes always held a look of slight dissatisfaction. He believed that a man, a gentleman anyhow, should gamble for the sheer fun of it, while he, on the contrary, did it to support himself.
Waters came from a slave-owning family that had lost all its wealth in the Civil War. From his father, who was killed at the Battle of Shiloh when he was one, he had inherited a mansion outside the city. Here he lived, the last of his line, preferring to a wife the company of whores in the French Quarter. He retained a Creole cook and a black maid. Over the old estate where cotton had grown before Sherman’s men burned it, he would ride his jet-black colt through the weeds and cypresses. Waters was a crack shot with a rifle and from time to time would enter the bayou to hunt birds and alligators. Though rugged as a Cajun, he looked urbane, with his short brown hair, smooth jaw line, and pencil sharp nose. He had a charming smile and his manners were polished. Even to his gambling friends, he was a generous host. The maid would fix the guest rooms, and for days on end, while he and others played cards, the chef would serve gumbo, oysters, and jambalaya. Sometimes he wished he had lived before the war, when slaves would have done all his work for him, but if he was not a true man of leisure, at least gambling allowed him to avoid real labor.
Now apart from his skills, benefitting them, Waters kept a cool head. No one had ever seen him get angry at the poker table. Up or down, winning or losing, he showed his opponents a suave exterior. He would declare his bets in a toneless voice, “I call,” or “I raise,” and he would push his chips forward without so much as a flicker of an eyelash. If at the end of a night he’d won, he would smile faintly but without a trace of pride or gloating. If he had lost, he would rise from the table, yawn nonchalantly, and congratulate the winners. Other gamblers envied his consistent success, but they admired his self-control.
Only two things could ruffle his poise. One involved the keeping of accounts. Waters rarely borrowed money, but when he did, he repaid his lender promptly. His credit rating among other gamblers was high, and he never welshed on a debt. The problems came when people took advantage of him. Those who were slow to pay their debts would be transfixed by an unnerving sight. Waters’ tan skin would turn red, his eyes would get narrow, and the veins in his brow would bulge.
“If you’re a gambler, you must be straight in your dealings with money. This is our first rule of conduct.”
One man, a visitor from Kansas City, laughed when Waters said this, and he hooted with outright glee when Waters, insulted by his show of mirth, asked for satisfaction.
“What world are you living in?” the other replied. “You’ll get your money when I have it to give.”
But maybe Waters thought he was holding the cash. Because the next night, in the French Quarter, in a dark alleyway near his hotel, the man was found with his throat cut. Policemen checked his pockets and examined his room, but they never came across his wallet. Though nobody could prove anything, the rumor spread that Waters had killed him.
Years later, another incident occurred. A man in a game Waters was playing in tried to cheat. This was a mistake. Waters had less tolerance for card sharps than he did for welshers. Just talking about such people made fire appear in his eyes and speckles of froth pop out on his lips. Maybe cheating players had fleeced him in the past, but he doubted it. He knew all the tricks and every time he played poker he watched for irregular moves and glances. On this occasion, the culprit was a baby-faced twenty-two year old, the son of a wealthy New Orleans businessman. He had been playing cards throughout Louisiana, and sources had it that some on the riverboats were labeling him a prodigy. Undaunted by the praise for the newcomer, keen to take him on, Waters invited him to his house for an overnight game with the best veterans. But perhaps the kid got worried on his end, anxious to ensure that he would beat them. Waters caught him rigging a shuffle, and his face swelled up with blood.
“In my house!” he roared. “I invite him as a guest and he cheats!”
The veterans, shocked by this outburst, beseeched him to restrain himself. Waters kept shouting, however, and under this onslaught, the youngster twitched. As if to make amends for his act, he threw all his money on the table, but the motion brought cards sliding out of his shirt sleeves.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he kept wailing, and he rose to leave.
His craven behavior made Waters even angrier. The boy had the gall to cheat in his house, and then to think he could depart unscathed. In a flash, like a panther, Waters leapt over the round oak table, scattering cards and chips. He jumped onto the boy and they fell to the floor. The others yanked at his arms and shoulders, but they couldn’t get a grip on him. Waters pushed them away. He drew from under his shirt the long retractable knife he always carried for protection, and ignoring the boy’s cries for mercy, stabbed him in the heart.
This time he’d gone too far. There were four witnesses, and the victim was the son of an influential man. The veterans sympathized with him, since they too hated cheaters, but once he had calmed down a bit, they told him he should flee. None of them, old acquaintances all, wanted to turn him in, but sooner or later they would have to tell the sheriff about the killing. They urged him to leave the state or, better yet, the country.
Waters wasted no time. Already he had regained his composure. He took all the money in the bedroom safe, eighty-six thousand dollars, and gave five thousand to one of the men.
“Give half to my cook, half to the maid. For their years of faithful service.”
The remaining cash, balled up in his clothes, he put in a leather rucksack, and he saddled the fastest horse on his estate. The night was dark. A wind purred in the cypresses. Waters knew he had acted rashly, that he had let his temper overwhelm him, but his only regret was for the inconvenience he’d brought upon himself, ruining his comfortable life.
Near Lake Pontchartrain, he dismounted, bidding his colt farewell. Then, carrying the rucksack over one shoulder, he walked to St. Philip Street and knocked on the door of a private residence. A window above him opened, and a man stepped onto the balcony. Waters greeted him. He was a hunting companion, a white-haired Frenchman in retirement after a career as a mercenary soldier. All over the world, fighting in wars, he had found lucrative employment, and upstairs in the lamplit study, Waters explained the situation. Then he asked a favor. He wondered whether his friend could use his foreign and maritime contacts to help him get settled in another country. It had to be a country where poker was popular because he had no intention of working for his money.
The Frenchman suggested Monaco, but Waters said he would like a rough land. When not gambling, he would want to hunt and ride horses, and he would love to have a forest nearby, to remind him of Louisiana’s bayous.
“You’re asking for a lot,” the Frenchman said, but he knew of a place.
As a mercenary, he had once fought on a Caribbean island. In this former Spanish colony, now calling itself a republic, he’d helped the army crush a peasant revolt. He’d given advice to General Hernandez Garcia Napoles, the country’s president. Gambling was legal in the capital there, and you could arrange poker games in the casinos. In fact, the President himself liked to play cards. The island had forests where you could hunt and hills where you could go riding, but Waters would have to learn Spanish. He said he could do that, and the Frenchman said “good.” As a side light, though, he told Waters not to get involved in politics. Power struggles and rebellions were common and proclaiming loyalty to any group could be unwise. If he made it clear to anyone who asked him that he had no interest in the nation’s internal affairs, he would probably be safe, no matter who was in the government. Waters said he could do that also, as he despised politics.
The Frenchman was satisfied, and for the next fortnight, while Waters hid in his apartment, he worked to find him a passage on a banana boat returning to the island. One captain was taking a ship there, and with a bundle of Waters’ money, the Frenchman persuaded the man to transport the fugitive. On the day Waters was to leave, his friend wrote him several letters of introduction to people he knew lived on the island. Included was a letter to the General himself.
But the Frenchman also gave him a warning: “Don’t play cards with Hernandez Garcia. He hates to lose, especially to gringos.”
Copyright © 2018 Scott Adlerberg.
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Scott Adlerberg is the author of Jack Waters, a historical revenge tale, from Broken River Books. His other books include the noir/fantasy novella Jungle Horses and the psychological thriller Graveyard Love. He co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer in Manhattan and blogs about books, movies, and writing at the crime fiction site Do Some Damage. He lives in New York City.