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
    Jan 2015, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elena Spagnolie

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Print Excerpt

In the white noise of the sixty baccarat tables, where a crowd of munitions workers were hurling down their company-secured chips with curses and hoorahs, I thought for a moment that I had gone deaf, and when my hearing returned the girl was talking to me across a pall of smoke. She was saying thank you or some such thing, and her lips moved like two parallel fingers playing a game of rock-paper- scissors. They were overpainted, as was the style there. She wore a small crocus-white dress, and that was all I cared to notice. Not especially pretty, as the boy had been quick to observe. Not especially pretty but not especially unattractive either. She drank the champagne awkwardly, holding the glass with two fingers so that it almost fell, and I half wished I hadn't bothered.

We played for a while.

"Is it your first time?" I asked her between hands, as the machine shuffled the cards and the dealer twirled his pallet; her nod made him wonder as well.

"Over from Hong Kong for the night?"

"From Aberdeen."

"Aberdeen," I said. "I know Aberdeen."

Everyone does.

"I go there for Jumbo's."

"Ah," she said. "I go there on Sunday."

"There's a better place on Lamma," I went on. "Rainbow."

"Yes, I know it."

The Shuffle Master ejected three cards apiece. She handled them in the way that a buyer in a market will handle small fish before buying them. I wondered if she knew what she was doing, but one doesn't advise the enemy. She looked over the tops of the cards, and there was the crooked, up-country smile, the overapplied paints and creams. I won the next hand. It cheered me after a long hiatus, and the long ebbing of my chips was checked. I drank off the glass of Krug and ordered another bottle. There were two of us drinking now.

After two more winning hands I went to the cashier and bought more chips. The night was turning soft and bitter at the edges, and I wanted to be at the center of it for another hour. The boys winked at me because I was being picked up by a secretary, but even if I was I didn't particularly mind. Any man can be picked up by a woman half his age and he won't protest, he won't go kicking and screaming. He'll go along with it for a while, just to see what happens. I returned to my seat and as I brushed past the girl from Aberdeen I saw the gold chain resting around the back of her neck and the blue edge of a tattoo covered by her dress strap. The ink looked pretty against her olive skin. She looked up for a second as my gaze swept across her neck—a woman never lets this go—and she turned her cards against this same gaze, as if I might be cheating. The idea that I might made me smile. It would be like fleecing a lamb with a pair of nail scissors. I suppose it was because I had been coming there so long without talking to a fellow player that I felt inclined to be careful with her. I gradually detached myself from the hands I played, although I was winning again, and enjoyed the second bottle, which had been deposited in the ice bucket. The floor manager came by and wished me luck. His Sino-Portuguese eyes filled with cheerful malice and I said I was happy either way, winning or losing. The girl looked up. I could tell that she understood English well. She watched me pick up my cards, shift them, glance down at them without any outward sign of emotion, and I felt, for some reason, that we understood each other.

I walked out with her into the casino lobby, and there was the lilt in our walk, the agreement deep down at the level of the body.

"It's not my favorite place," I said grandly. "Have you been to the Venetian?" I hate that, too, my tone implied. She tried to smile back, but I could see that she was seesawing internally, weighing it up and down, this venture into a specific form of corruption. We walked out past the statue of Pegasus in the courtyard, and its wings were flapping, smoke blowing out of its nose, and the whores standing about in the parking lot were laughing at us.

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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