Excerpt from The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Ballad of a Small Player

by Lawrence Osborne

The Ballad of a Small Player
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2014, 272 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2015, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elena Spagnolie

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and Hong Kong dollars, with a few tourist tokens thrown in. Easy pickings, she is thinking, looking at this plump gwai lo in his gloves and bow tie, with his look of a New England literature professor out on the town without permission from his wife. She looks me over, this bitch, and I enjoy the thought of skinning her alive with a few good hands. This encourages me to settle in.

The bets are $50 HK a hand. I begin to smoke, as I always do—Red Pagoda Hill and Zongnanha, the stuff that kills. The dealer gives me a little look. He, too, recognizes me; there are only a handful of gwai lo players in the whole city. "The wind," he says kindly, "is blowing the wrong way tonight." Bail out? But, I think, the bitch is making money. She is sucking my money out of me. No, no. "Keep at it," I say.

"Sure?"

"Sure."

I double my bets. I put down hundred-dollar bills on the three card plays and watch them disappear to the other side of the table. "One fifty," the woman says in Mandarin, tossing a green chip into the middle of an even greener table.

"Two hundred," I say in Cantonese.

"Two fifty."

"Three fifty!"

"All right," she sighs.

We play for four hands, and I lose three. A plate of baccalau appears on the table and the woman picks up a plastic fork with undisguised relish. The I Ching is with her.

I now see how much gold she is wearing. I get up unsteadily and decide to backtrack to the men's room and cool off. The dealer hesitates and says, "Sir?" but I wave him down. "I'll be back," I say.

I never give up on the night until I am ready to fall down. I walk off, as if it doesn't matter to me at all. As if I really will come back from the men's room and skin her alive, and I am sure I will.

T w o

When I came back the older woman had disappeared. She had pulled her loot while ahead and was even now hauling a velvet bag of chips to the cashier. In her place another woman had sat down, but much more nervously and with a different weight to her hands. At a table, it is always the hands that I notice first. There are rapacious hands and expert ones, experienced hands and naïve ones, killer hands and victim hands. She was much younger, too. She perched at the far end of the table with a vulgar little handbag of the kind you can buy in the markets in Shenzen, badly made Fendi with gilt metal that flakes away after a week, and her left hand rested protectively on a small pile of lower-denomination red chips. She hoarded them in this way while her eyes scanned the surface of the table as if it were something she had never seen before. So she had sat at what she thought was an empty table. The bottle of champagne was still in its bucket, however. The waiter came up—he knew me—and said, in the heavy irony which the boys used with me in those days, "More champagne, Lord Doyle?"

As he said this, the girl's eyes rose for a moment. They shifted sideways to the electric number board behind me. The rows of yellow numbers had suddenly altered and I could hear them click, as if the luck force field were flicking them over like cards.

"Is that a change of luck?"

"It must be, your lordship."

We laughed. I was the jolliest loser. I turned in my seat and motioned to the girl.

"Why not ask the señorita if she'd like a glass of champagne?"

He leaned down to my ear.

"Are you sure, sir?"

"Sure."

I pulled away from his whisper and gripped the neck of the bottle, extracting it from a rustle of ice.

"Why not?"

The waiter spoke to her in Mandarin. She said, "That's nice" in Cantonese. I spoke to her in the same language.

"It's vintage, you know, it's not just any old bubbly."

Excerpted from The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne. Copyright © 2014 by Lawrence Osborne. Excerpted by permission of Hogarth Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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