memories of midnight-Page 13

There were four men in the hotel room besides Tony Rizzoli and Victor Korontzis.

"I want you to meet my friend Otto Dalton," Rizzoli said. "Victor Korontzis."

The two men shook hands.

Rizzoli looked at the others quizically. "I don't believe I've met these other gentlemen."

Otto Dalton made the introductions.

"Perry Breslauer from Detroit...Marvin Seymour from Houston...Sal Prizzi from New York."

Victor Korontzis nodded to the men, not trusting his voice.

Otto Dalton was in his sixties, thin, gray-haired, affable. Perry Breslauer was younger, but his face was drawn and pinched. Marvin Seymour was a thin, mild-looking man. Sal Prizzi was a huge man, built like an oak tree, with powerful limbs for arms. He had small, mean eyes, and his face had been badly scarred with a knife.

Rizzoli had briefed Korontzis before the game. These guys have a lot of money. They can afford to lose big. Seymour owns an insurance company, Breslauer has auto dealerships all over the United States, and Sal Prizzi is head of a big union in New York.

Otto Dalton was speaking. "All right, gentlemen. Shall we get started? The white chips are five dollars, the blue are ten, the red are twenty-five, and the black ones are fifty. Let's see the color of your money."

Korontzis pulled out the five hundred dollars that Tony Rizzoli had loaned him. No, he thought, not loaned, given. He looked over at Rizzoli and smiled. What a wonderful friend Rizzoli is.

The other men were taking out large bank rolls.

Korontzis felt a sudden sense of concern. What if something went wrong, and he lost the five hundred dollars? He shrugged it off. His friend Tony would take care of it. But if he won. Korontzis was filled with a sudden feeling of euphoria.

The game began.

It was dealer's choice. The stakes were small at first, and there were games of five-card stud, seven-card stud, draw poker, and high-low.

In the beginning the wins and losses were spread evenly, but slowly the tide began to turn.

It seemed that Victor Korontzis and Tony Rizzoli could do no wrong. If they had fair cards, the others had worse cards. If the others had good hands, Korontzis and Rizzoli had better hands.

Victor Korontzis could not believe his luck. At the end of the evening he had won almost two thousand dollars. It was like a miracle.

"You guys were sure lucky," Marvin Seymour grumbled.

"I'll say," Breslauer agreed. "How about giving us another chance tomorrow?"

"I'll let you know," Rizzoli said.

When they had gone, Korontzis exclaimed, "I can't believe it. Two thousand dollars!"

Rizzoli laughed. "That's chicken feed. I told you. Otto is one of the slickest mechanics in the business. Those guys are dying to get another crack at us. Are you interested?"

"You bet." There was a broad grin on Korontzis's face. "I think I just made a joke."

The following night, Victor Korontzis won three thousand dollars.

"It's fantastic!" he told Rizzoli. "Don't they suspect anything?"

"Of course not. I'll bet you they ask us to raise the stakes tomorrow. They think they're going to win their money back. Are you in?"

"Sure, Tony. I'm in."

As they were sitting down to play, Sal Prizzi said, "You know, we're the big losers so far. How about up-ping the stakes?"

Tony Rizzoli looked over at Korontzis and winked.

"It's all right with me," Rizzoli said. "How about you fellows?"

They all nodded agreement.

Otto Dalton set up piles of chips. "The whites are fifty dollars, the blues are a hundred, reds five hundred, blacks a thousand."

Victor Korontzis looked at Rizzoli uneasily. He had not planned on the stakes being so high.

Rizzoli nodded reassuringly.

The game began.

Nothing changed. Victor Korontzis's hands were magic. Whatever cards he held beat the others. Tony Rizzoli was also winning, but not as much.

"Fucking cards!" Prizzi grumbled. "Let's change decks."

Otto Dalton obligingly produced a fresh deck.

Korontzis looked over at Tony Rizzoli and smiled. He knew that nothing was going to change their luck.

At midnight they had sandwiches sent up. The players took a fifteen-minute break.

Tony Rizzoli took Korontzis aside. "I told Otto to chum them a little," he whispered.

"I don't understand."

"Let them win a few hands. If they keep losing all the time, they'll get discouraged and quit."

"Oh, I see. That's very smart."

"When they think they're hot, we'll raise the stakes again and really nail them big."

Victor Korontzis was hesitant. "I've already won so much money, Tony. Don't you think maybe we should quit while we're...?"

Tony Rizzoli looked him in the eye and said, "Victor, how would you like to leave here tonight with fifty thousand dollars in your pocket?"

When the game resumed, Breslauer, Prizzi, and Seymour began to win. Korontzis's hands were still good, but the others were better.

Otto Dalton is a genius, Korontzis thought. He had been watching him deal, and had not been able to detect one false move.

As the play went on, Victor Korontzis kept losing. He was not concerned. In a few minutes, when they had - what was the word? - chummed the others, he and Rizzoli and Dalton would move in for the kill.

Sal Prizzi was gloating. "Well," he said, "it looks like you fellows have cooled off."

Tony Rizzoli shook his head ruefully. "Yes, it sure does, doesn't it?" He gave Korontzis a knowing look.

"Your luck couldn't go on forever," Marvin Seymour said.

Perry Breslauer spoke up. "What do you say we increase the stakes again, and give us a real crack at you?"

Tony Rizzoli pretended to consider it. "I don't know," he said thoughtfully. He turned to Victor Korontzis. "What do you think, Victor?"

How would you like to leave here tonight with fifty thousand dollars in your pocket? I'll be able to buy a house, and a new car. I can take the family on vacations...Korontzis was almost trembling with excitement. He smiled. "Why not?"

"All right," Sal Prizzi said. "We'll play table stakes. The sky's the limit."

They were playing five-card draw. The cards were dealt.

"It's my ante," Breslauer said. "Let's open for five thousand dollars."

Each player put in his ante.

Victor Korontzis was dealt two queens. He drew three cards, and one of them was another queen.

Rizzoli looked at his hand and said, "Up a thousand."

Marvin Seymour studied his hand. "I'll call, and raise you two thousand."

Otto Dalton threw in his cards. "Too rich for my blood."

Sal Prizzi said, "I'll call."

The pot went to Marvin Seymour's straight.

In the next hand, Victor Korontzis was dealt an eight, nine, ten, and jack of hearts. One card away from a straight flush!

"I'll call for a thousand dollars," Dalton said.

"I'll call, and raise you a thousand."

Sal Prizzi said, "Let's bump it another thousand."

It was Korontzis's turn. He was sure that a straight flush would beat whatever the others were holding. He was only one card away.

"I call." He drew a card, and put it facedown, not daring to look at it.

Breslauer laid his hand down. "A pair of fours and a pair of tens."

Prizzi put his hand down. "Three sevens."

They turned to look at Victor Korontzis. He took a deep breath, and picked up his hole card. It was black. "Busted," he said. He threw his hand in.

The pots kept growing larger.

Victor Korontzis's pile of chips had shrunk to almost nothing. He looked over at Tony Rizzoli, concerned.

Rizzoli smiled reassuringly, a smile that said, There's nothing to worry about.

Rizzoli opened the next pot.

The cards were dealt.

"We'll ante a thousand dollars."

Perry Breslauer: "I'll raise you a thousand."

Marvin Seymour: "And I'll bump you two."

Sal Prizzi: "You know something? I think you fellows are bluffing. Let's raise it five more."

Victor Korontzis had not looked at his hand yet. When is the damn chumming going to stop?

"Victor?"

Korontzis picked up his hand slowly and fanned out the cards one by one. An ace, another ace, and a third ace, plus a king and a ten. His blood began to race.

"Are you in?"

He smiled to himself. The chumming had stopped. He knew that he was going to be dealt another king for a full house. He threw the ten away and tried to keep his voice casual. "I'll call. One card, please."

Otto Dalton said, "I'll take two." He looked at his cards. "I raise a thousand."

Tony Rizzoli shook his head. "Too rich for me." He threw his hand in.

"I'm in," Prizzi said, "and I'll raise five thousand."

Marvin Seymour threw in his hand. "I'm out."

It was between Victor Korontzis and Sal Prizzi.

"Are you calling?" Prizzi asked. "It'll cost you five thousand more."

Victor Korontzis looked at his pile of chips. Five thousand was all he had left. But when I win this pot...he thought. He looked at his hand again. It was unbeatable. He put the pile of chips in the center of the table and drew a card. It was a five. But he still had three aces. He laid down his hand. "Three aces."

Prizzi spread out his hand. "Four deuces."

Korontzis sat there, stunned, watching Prizzi rake in the pot. Somehow he felt as though he had failed his friend Tony. If I could only have held out until we started to win.

It was Prizzi's deal. "Seven-card stud," he announced. "Let's put a thousand dollars in the pot."

The other players threw in their antes.

Victor Korontzis looked over at Tony Rizzoli helplessly. "I don't have..."

"It's all right," Rizzoli said. He turned to the others. "Look, fellows, Victor didn't have a chance to pick up much cash to bring tonight, but I can assure you all that he's good for it. Let's give him credit, and we'll settle up at the end of the evening."

Prizzi said, "Hold it. What is this - a fucking credit union? We don't know Victor Korontzis from Adam's ass. How do we know he'll pay up?"

"You have my word on it," Tony Rizzoli assured him. "Otto here will vouch for me."

Otto Dalton spoke up. "If Tony says Mr. Korontzis is all right, then he's all right."

Sal Prizzi shrugged. "Well, I guess it's okay."

"It's fine with me," Perry Breslauer said.

Otto Dalton turned to Victor Korontzis. "How much would you like?"

"Give him ten thousand," Tony Rizzoli said.

Korontzis looked over at him in surprise. Ten thousand dollars was more money than he made in two years. But Rizzoli must have known what he was doing.

Victor Korontzis swallowed. "That...that will be fine."

A pile of chips was put in front of Korontzis.

The cards that night were Victor Korontzis's enemy. As the stakes went up, his new pile of chips kept diminishing. Tony Rizzoli was losing also.

At two A.M. they took a break. Korontzis got Tony Rizzoli in a corner.

"What's happening?" Korontzis whispered in a panic. "My God, do you know how much money I'm behind?"

"Don't worry, Victor. So am I. I've given Otto the signal. When it's his turn to deal, the game will turn around. We're going to hit them big."

They took their seats again.

"Give my friend another twenty-five thousand dollars," Rizzoli said.

Marvin Seymour frowned. "Are you sure he wants to keep playing?"

Rizzoli turned to Victor Korontzis. "It's up to you."

Korontzis hesitated. I've given Otto the signal. The game will turn around. "I'm in."

"Okay."

Twenty-five thousand dollars' worth of chips was placed in front of Korontzis. He looked at the chips and suddenly felt very lucky.

Otto Dalton was dealing. "All right, gentlemen. The game is five-card stud. The initial bet is one thousand dollars."

The players put their chips in the center of the table.

Dalton dealt out five cards to each player. Korontzis did not look at his hand. I'll wait, he thought. It will be good luck.

"Place your bets."

Marvin Seymour, seated at Dalton's right, studied his hand for a moment. "I'll fold." He threw his cards in.

Sal Prizzi was next. "I'll call, and raise a thousand." He put his chips in the center of the table.

Tony Rizzoli looked at his hand and shrugged. "I'll fold." He threw his cards down.

Perry Breslauer was looking at his hand and grinning. "I'll see the raise, and I'll raise you five thousand more."

It would cost Victor Korontzis six thousand dollars to stay in the game. Slowly, he picked up his hand and fanned out the cards. He could not believe what he saw. He was holding a pat straight flush - a five, six, seven, eight, and nine of hearts. A perfect hand! So Tony had been right. Thank God! Korontzis tried to hide his excitement. "I'll see the raise, and I'll raise you five thousand." This was the hand that was going to make him rich.

Dalton threw in his hand. "Not for me. Pass."

"It's up to me," Sal Prizzi said. "I think you're bluffing, pal. I'll call, and raise you another five."

Victor Korontzis felt a little thrill of excitement go through him. He had been dealt the hand of a lifetime. This would be the biggest jackpot of the game.

Perry Breslauer was studying his hand. "Well, I think I'll call, and raise another five, fellows."

It was up to Victor Korontzis again. He took a deep breath. "I'll see you, and raise another five." He was almost trembling with excitement. It was all he could do to keep from reaching out and raking in the pot.

Perry Breslauer spread out his hand, a look of triumph on his face. "Three kings."

I've won! Victor Korontzis thought. "Not good enough," he smiled. "A straight flush." He put down his cards, and reached eagerly for the pot.

"Hold it!" Sal Prizzi slowly laid down his hand. "I beat you with a royal flush. The ten to the ace of spades."

Victor Korontzis turned pale. He felt suddenly faint, and his heart began to palpitate.

"Jesus," Tony Rizzoli said. "Two goddamned straight flushes?" He turned to Korontzis. "I'm sorry, Victor. I...I don't know what to say."

Otto Dalton said, "I think that's it for tonight, gentlemen." He consulted a slip of paper and turned to Victor Korontzis. "You owe sixty-five thousand dollars."

Victor Korontzis looked over at Tony Rizzoli, stunned. Rizzoli shrugged helplessly. Korontzis pulled out a handkerchief and began to swab at his brow.

"How do you want to pay that?" Dalton asked. "Cash or check?"

"I don't take checks," Prizzi said. He looked at Victor Korontzis. "I'll take the cash."

"I...I..." The words would not come out. He found he was trembling. "I...I don't have that..."

Sal Prizzi's face darkened. "You what?" he barked.

Tony Rizzoli said quickly, "Wait a minute. Victor means he doesn't have it with him. I told you he was good for it."

"That doesn't put any bread on my table, Rizzoli. I want to see his money."

"You will," Rizzoli said reassuringly. "You'll have it in the next few days."

Sal Prizzi jumped to his feet. "Fuck that. I'm not a charity. I want that money by tomorrow."

"Don't worry. He'll deliver it."

Victor Korontzis was caught in the middle of a nightmare and there was no way out. He sat there, unable to move, barely aware of the others leaving. Tony and Korontzis were alone.

Korontzis was in a daze. "I...I can never raise that kind of money," he moaned. "Never!"

Rizzoli put a hand on Korontzis's shoulder. "I don't know what to tell you, Victor. I don't know what went wrong. I guess I lost almost as much money as you did tonight."

Victor Korontzis wiped his eyes. "But...but you can afford it, Tony. I...I can't. I'm going to have to explain to them that I can't pay them."

Tony Rizzoli said, "I'd think about that if I were you, Victor. Sal Prizzi is the head of the East Coast Seamen's Union. I hear those boys play pretty rough."

"I can't help it. If I haven't got the money, I haven't got the money. What can he do to me?"

"Let me explain what he can do to you," Rizzoli said earnestly. "He can have his boys shoot off your kneecaps. You'll never walk again. He can have them throw acid in your eyes. You'll never see again. And then, when you've had all the pain you can stand, he'll decide whether to let you live like that, or to kill you."

Victor Korontzis was staring at him, his face ashen. "You...you're joking."

"I wish I was. It's my fault, Victor. I should never have let you get in a game with a man like Sal Prizzi. He's a killer."

"Oh, my God. What am I going to do?"

"Do you have any way of raising the money?"

Korontzis began to laugh hysterically. "Tony...I can barely support my family on what I make."

"Well, then, the only thing I can suggest is that you leave town, Victor. Maybe get out of the country. Go somewhere where Prizzi can't find you."

"I can't do that," Victor Korontzis wailed. "I have a wife and four children." He looked at Tony Rizzoli accusingly. "You said it was going to be a setup, that we couldn't lose. You told me..."

"I know. And I'm really sorry. It always worked before. The only thing I can think of is that Prizzi cheated."

Korontzis's face filled with hope. "Well, then, if he cheated I don't have to pay him."

"There's a problem with that, Victor," Rizzoli said patiently. "If you accuse him of cheating he'll kill you, and if you don't pay him he'll kill you."

"Oh, my God," Korontzis moaned. "I'm a dead man."

"I really feel terrible about this. Are you sure there's no way you could raise...?"

"It would take me a hundred lifetimes. A thousand lifetimes. Everything I have is mortgaged. Where would I get...?"

And at that moment, Tony Rizzoli had a sudden inspiration. "Wait a minute, Victor! Didn't you say that those artifacts in the museum were worth a lot of money?"

"Yes, but what does that have to do with...?"

"Just let me finish. You said that the copies were as good as the originals."

"Of course they're not. Any expert could tell..."

"Whoa. Hold it. What if one of those artifacts was missing and a copy was put in its place? I mean, when I was in the museum there were a lot of tourists going through. Could they tell the difference?"

"No, but...I...I see what you mean. No, I could never do that."

Rizzoli said soothingly, "I understand, Victor. I just thought maybe the museum could spare one little artifact. They've got so many."

Victor Korontzis shook his head. "I've been the curator at that museum for twenty years. I could never think of such a thing."

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have even suggested it. The only reason I thought of it was because it could save your life." Rizzoli stood up and stretched. "Well, it's getting late. I guess your wife will be wondering where you are."

Victor Korontzis was staring at him. "It could save my life? How?"

"It's simple. If you took one of those antiques..."

"Antiquities."

"...antiquities...and gave it to me, I could get it out of the country and sell it for you, and give Prizzi the money you owe him. I think I could persuade him to hold off that long. And you'd be off the hook. I don't have to tell you that I'd be taking a big risk for you, because if I got caught I'd be in a lot of trouble. But I'm offering to do it because I feel I owe you one. It's my fault you got into this mess."

"You're a good friend," Victor Korontzis said. "But I can't blame you. I didn't have to get in that game. You were trying to do me a favor."

"I know. I just wish it had turned out differently. Well, let's get some sleep. I'll talk to you tomorrow. Good night, Victor."

"Good night, Tony."

The call came in to the museum early the following morning. "Korontzis?"

"Yes?"

"This is Sal Prizzi."

"Good morning, Mr. Prizzi."

"I'm callin' about that little matter of sixty-five thousand dollars. What time can I pick it up?"

Victor Korontzis began to perspire heavily. "I...I don't have the money right now, Mr. Prizzi."

There was an ominous silence at the other end of the phone. "What the hell kind of game are you playing with me?"

"Believe me, I'm not playing any games. I..."

"Then I want my fucking money. Is that clear?"

"Yes, sir."

"What time does your museum close?"

"Six...six o'clock."

"I'll be there. Have the money for me, or I'll break your face in. And after that, I'm really going to hurt you."

The line went dead.

Victor Korontzis sat there in a panic. He wanted to hide. But where? He was engulfed by a feeling of total desperation, caught in a vortex of "ifs": If only I hadn't gone to the casino that night; if only I had never met Tony Rizzoli; if only I had kept my promise to my wife never to gamble again. He shook his head to clear it. I have to do something - now.

And at that moment, Tony Rizzoli walked into his office. "Good morning, Victor."

It was six-thirty. The staff had gone home, and the museum had been closed for half an hour. Victor Korontzis and Tony Rizzoli were watching the front door.

Korontzis was getting increasingly nervous. "What if he says no? What if he wants his money tonight?"

"I'll handle him," Tony Rizzoli said. "Just let me do the talking."

"What if he doesn't show up? What if he just...you know...sends someone to kill me? Do you think he would do that?"

"Not as long as he has a chance of getting his money," Rizzoli said confidently.

At seven o'clock, Sal Prizzi finally appeared.

Korontzis hurried over to the door and opened it. "Good evening," he said.

Prizzi looked at Rizzoli. "What the fuck are you doin' here?" He turned back to Victor Korontzis. "This is just between us."

"Take it easy," Rizzoli said. "I'm here to help."

"I don't need your help." Prizzi turned to Korontzis. "Where's my money?"

"I...I don't have it. But..."

Prizzi grabbed him by the throat. "Listen, you little prick. You'll give me that money tonight, or I'm going to feed you to the fish. Do you understand?"

Tony Rizzoli said, "Hey, cool down. You're going to get your money."

Prizzi turned on him. "I told you to stay out of this. It's none of your business."

"I'm making it my business. I'm Victor's friend. Victor doesn't have the cash right now, but he has a way to get it for you."

"Has he got the money, or hasn't he?"

"He has, and he hasn't," Rizzoli said.

"What the hell kind of answer is that?"

Tony Rizzoli's arm swept around the room. "The money's there."

Sal Prizzi scanned the room. "Where?"

"In those cases. They're full of antiques..."

"Antiquities," Korontzis said automatically.

"...that are worth a fortune. I'm talking about millions."

"Yeah?" Prizzi turned to look at the cases. "What good are they going to do me if they're locked away in a museum? I want cash."

"You're going to get cash," Rizzoli said soothingly. "Twice what our friend owes you. You just have to be a little patient, that's all. Victor's not a welsher. He just needs a little more time. I'll tell you his plan. Victor's going to take one of these antiques...antiquities...and arrange to sell it. As soon as he gets the money, he'll pay you."

Sal Prizzi shook his head. "I don't like it. I don't know nothing about this antique stuff."

"You don't have to. Victor's one of the world's greatest experts." Tony Rizzoli walked over to one of the cases and pointed to a marble head. "What would you say that's worth, Victor?"

Victor Korontzis swallowed. "That's the goddess Hygea, fourteenth century B.C. Any collector would gladly pay two or three million dollars for it."

Rizzoli turned to Sal Prizzi. "There you are. See what I mean?"

Prizzi frowned. "I don't know. How long would I have to wait?"

"You'll have double your money inside a month."

Prizzi thought a moment, then nodded. "Okay, but if I have to wait a month, I want more - say an extra couple of hundred grand."

Tony Rizzoli looked over at Victor Korontzis.

Korontzis was nodding his head eagerly.

"Okay," Rizzoli said. "You have a deal."

Sal Prizzi walked over to the little curator. "I'm giving you thirty days. If I don't have my money by then, you're dog meat. Do I make myself clear?"

Korontzis swallowed. "Yes, sir."

"Remember...thirty days."

He gave Tony Rizzoli a long, hard look. "I don't like you."

They watched as Sal Prizzi turned and walked out the door.

Korontzis sank into a chair, wiping his brow.

"Oh, my God," he said. "I thought he was going to kill me. Do you think we can get him his money in thirty days?"

"Sure," Tony Rizzoli promised. "All you have to do is take one of those things out of the case and put a copy in its place."

"How will you get it out of the country? You'll go to prison if they catch you."

"I know," Tony Rizzoli said stoutly. "But it's a chance I'm going to have to take. I owe you that much, Victor."

One hour later, Tony Rizzoli, Sal Prizzi, Otto Dalton, Perry Breslauer, and Marvin Seymour were having drinks in Dalton's hotel suite.

"Smooth as silk," Rizzoli boasted. "The bastard pissed his pants."

Sal Prizzi grinned. "I scared him, huh?"

"You scared me," Rizzoli said. "You should be a fucking actor."

"What's the deal now?" Marvin Seymour asked.

Rizzoli replied, "The deal is, he gives me one of those antiques. I'll find a way to smuggle it out of the country and sell it. Then I'll give you each your cut."

"Beautiful," Perry Breslauer said. "I love it."

It's like having a gold mine, Rizzoli thought. Once Korontzis goes along with this, he's hooked. There's no way he can ever back out. I'm going to make him clean out the whole goddamned museum.

Marvin Seymour asked, "How are you going to get the stuff out of the country?"

"I'll find a way," Tony Rizzoli said. "I'll find a way."

He had to. And fast. Alfredo Mancuso and Gino La-veri were waiting.