“He’s going to lose it all.” Gertruida – who knows everything – watches the croupier and shivers. The little white ball is in his hand, waiting to be thrown, carrying with it the spiralling hopes of Rolbos in circles round and round on the wooden margin next to the roulette wheel.
It started when the chap with the oily hair and the pencil moustache walked into Boggel’s Place a week ago. His Oakleys hung on a strap around his thin neck, drawing attention away from his uneven teeth.
“Good morning, you good people of Rolbos!” His voice boomed through Boggel’s as he walked in. “Good morning you fortunate little flock!”
Gertruida, Precilla, Vetfaan and Servaas tried to see exactly who he was talking about, but they were, of course, the fortunate little flock the greasy gentleman had greeted. Boggel, safe under the counter, didn’t count.
Undeterred, the man continued: “I am Guido Grimaldi, known as Slick to his friends, professional gambler and casino punter. I assume you chaps are thirsty? Let me buy you a round of drinks! Barman!” He looked around, searching the room for a barkeep. Vetfaan pointed to the counter. Slick didn’t understand.
But Boggel did: here was somebody with a generous heart and an open purse… He got off his favourite cushion with a happy smile to serve his customers.
“And what exactly, is a casino punter?” Servaas had heard about gamblers before, but this ‘punter’ was new to him.
“Good question, my dear sir.” He lit a long cheroot before continuing, “my job is an interesting one. I promote the exquisite pleasures of visiting casinos. Travel the world; see all kinds of interesting people and places, every day different. It’s a family business.”
During all this time, Gertruida was strangely silent, as if something big and important in her mind bugged her.
“Grimaldi? You are a Grimaldi?” For once, Gertruida had been dumbstruck by the name.
“Indeed, Madam. I assume your surprise is associated with my family in Monaco?” Guido gave a knowing smile. “Some people are intimidated by our fame and riches, of course.”
“I’m not in the least intimidated, mister Grimaldi, but I am surprised. Why would a member of such a family visit a one-horse town like Rolbos.”
At that time Vetfaan interrupted the conversation and Gertruida, who knows everything, had to explain who the Grimaldi’s are and where Monaco is. The look on Vetfaan’s face told her that he didn’t believe her. A city that is not only a country, but a kingdom as well? The bit about the family who ruled it since 1297 was almost too much to accept – that was, after all, even before the Groot Trek!
“And they have the Monte Carlo Casino, as well.” Gertruida concluded her lecture with a smile. These Grimaldi’s mustn’t think that Rolbos is ignorant.
“Exactly, madam. I’m hugely impressed with your knowledge. Bravo! You’ve made my job so much easier, thank you.” Guido ordered another round of drinks. “You will also know then, that Prince Albert, our dear and respected incumbent, will be married to a South African lady one of these days.” Gertruida nodded: she reads the Huisgenoot, too. “Well, to promote the cooperation between your big country and our very small one, we Grimaldi’s sat down one evening to discuss a plan to enhance ties with South Africa. You may know that Monaco is a very rich principality and that it will be in your country’s best interest to entertain these affluent tourists.”
“Sooo…?” Gertruida just couldn’t get what the man was trying to say.
“To cut to the quick: we have arranged for somebody to make a fabulous fortune in a casino. Somebody who is a nobody, from nowhere. A common Joe, if you want. A person everybody can identify with.” He stopped for a moment, building the suspense. “And we have decided Rolbos, as the smallest town in South Africa, is the place we want our winner to come from. Small town, small kingdom, see?” They didn’t, but he continued anyway. “Now, to answer your question, madam: a casino punter is a person who promotes the interest in a casino. With the worldwide recession, it has become necessary market casinos aggressively. The Grimaldi’s are stakeholders in all casinos. worldwide. We don’t advertise that fact, of course, being the discreet family we are. You don’t hold onto a kingdom for almost a thousand years by being brash. However, when King Florestan legalised gambling and ordered the construction of Monte Carlo Casino in 1854, the word ‘Casino’ became the property of the Grimaldi family. The only way you can open a casino is by having the family buy into the establishment. Hence: Monaco has the highest income per capita in the world, simply because of the brilliance of one of our kings.”
Gertruida, who thought she knew everything, had to concentrate to keep her jaw from dropping to her chest. Their guest pretended not to notice.
“So. We want our casinos to prosper: I market that. We want South Africans to support our casinos: that’s a punter’s job. We want somebody to become fabulously rich, so that other South Africans spend more money in the casinos: that’s what we are talking about. And we want more of our citizens touring South Africa, simply because we will have a South African queen one of these days and mutual understanding of each other is going to forge new ties between the two counties.”
Guido ended with a flourish and sat down. It was Boggel who broke the silence.
“I didn’t know all this, you know? But everything you said concerns all kinds of stuff that won’t make a difference in Rolbos – except for the bit about somebody becoming fabulously rich. What was that all about?
Guido took his glass, toyed with it and sighed. “Well, you chaps must decide who your candidate is. That man or woman goes to the casino in Upington, The Desert Palace, places a bet on the roulette table, and breaks the bank. Simple.”
Servaas was nervous about the whole thing. For the first time in years, he went to the bank for a loan. Guido explained that, in order to get a seat at the special wheel, a fee of R10,000 had to be paid. That was an upfront payment to the Grimaldi’s and was their assurance that the player understood the gravity of the situation. This deposit was necessary, Guido said, to keep small-time players out. Then the gambler could place everything he had on number 27, wait for the spin and walk away with 35 times that amount. It went without saying that the higher the bet, the more impressive the win would be. Gertruida said it was a scam but Servaas thought about his life as Post Master and Kleinpiet about the tired 1974 Datsun that needed replacing. Precilla dreamt about new wardrobe full of Levi’s.
“The best way, as I see it, is that the townspeople of Rolbos should form a consortium. If everybody chips in, everybody wins. Those that don’t play along will only lose.” Guido was very specific about that.
In the end, everybody in town contributed. The meeting to set up the consortium took a whole weekend but Guido was patient and very persuasive. Even afterwards, when everything was over, they all agreed that he was a very good casino punter, indeed.
Guido said he wasn’t allowed to join them in the casino. It would look like it was an arranged thing, he said. He described the casino in detail, said where the ‘right’ table was, and told them to be there at half-past-ten that evening. Servaas, who was to be the player, had to place two smallish bets on Black, catch the croupier’s eye and knock on the table twice. That would be the signal. The next round would be the big one.
“I’m telling you, that Guido took our money and we’re going to lose everything. I don’t trust him at all.” Gertruida and Oudoom are sitting in the lounge as they wait for the time they must join the table. Servaas fiddles with his tie while Vetfaan and Kleinpiet are strolling about between the rows of slot machines. Boggel wipes the sweat from his brow. Over at the bar, Precilla sips her third gin.
“But still, what if he’s right? We’ll be fools if we miss this one?”
“We are fools, Boggel. That’s why we are here.” Oudoom calculated the sum of the numbers on the roulette wheel and came up with the total of 666. The only reason why he participates in the scheme is because the parsonage needs painting. “It’s the only chance. Tithing won’t do it,” he explained.
Servaas has placed the two consecutive bets of R100 each on Black, right on time. He has met the croupier’s stare, knocked the wood of the table twice, and moved their collective savings, borrowings and small change to number 27. Their total bet was R125,826.75.
It is Gertruida who upsets the evening. When Servaas places the money on 27, she gets that far-off look of somebody who has just realised something really important.
“It’s American,” she whispers.
The croupier stops in midstride, just after he rolled the ball when Gertruida leans over to move their stash.
Calmly and ever so casually, she moves the chips to number 28. Servaas groans, Boggel sinks to the floor and Oudoom closes his eyes in silent prayer as the croupier shouts no more bets with an evil grin. Vetfaan and Kleinpiet stands rooted to the floor. Precilla can’t look.
The ball rolls and rolls, counter to the whirl of the wheel on the wooden verge of the spinning disk. The floor manager has heard about the bet and is looking over he shoulder of the croupier, rubbing his hands together. The spectators around the table hold in a collective breath as the ball loses momentum, descends towards the middle and starts hopping over the spinning numbers. It takes forever.
“How did you know, Gertruida? What on earth made you move the bet to 28?”
Gertruida smiles her superior, all-knowing smile. “It’s quite simple, really”
They are back in Rolbos, where Boggel is serving beer from the cooler. The sun will be up in a few minutes but already the cool of the night is giving way to the heat that will follow. Vrede, the town’s dog, is still sleeping in his kennel outside the back door.
“That was an American table, people. It’s got the zero and double zero. The European tables only have one zero. The difference is that the American table has 38 slots while the others have only 37. Our friend Guido comes from Europe, so he had to be one number out. I’m sure you all know that?”
Oudoom has broken all the rules. He gambled with his savings and his reputation and now he’s drinking beer, even before sunrise?
“Guido is a swindler, is he not?” He has to know. If a believer swindles a swindler, making his lie into truth, then Sin is transformed into Good. In that case, he can have the parsonage painted with the knowledge that the paint is paid with honest money.
“I still think he’s legit. Servaas did place those two bets on Black, remember?” Vetfaan stares into the beer before him, thinking about the sheep he’s going to buy.
“That guy is no Grimaldi! Did you see any photographers over there? And when they paid out our bet, the floor manager had a funny green tinge. I don’t think they were happy about Monaco-South African relations right then. And, of course, they requested that we leave – said we were bad for business.” Kleinpiet thinks he’ll buy a Toyota; those bakkies go forever.
Boggel shrugs. “So what happened to Guido, anyway?”
They’ll never know. Guido, known as Slick to his friends, is satisfied with his takings. It’ll last for a while and then he’ll pop up again as a Rothschild or maybe Kallie Kerzner somewhere on the platteland. If you meet him, remember to bet on something else – or even stay at home. Unless, of course, you have Gertruida with you. You may have a chance, then.