Nathaniel Cannon and the Panamanian Idol No. 42

By the time they pushed away their plates, the clock read 7:20. Cannon kept his poker face on as they moved to the sitting room. Half of it was given over to plush red chairs and a sofa, arranged around the window. The half nearer the entry centered on a green felt card table. A crystal glass sat on a coaster in front of each of the four chairs, and the bottle of vodka stood at the middle of the table.

Cannon pulled out a chair for Iseabail and circled the table to sit across from her. The Russians took the other chairs. Volkov poured a glass of vodka for each of them. “Zdorovye,” he said.

“To your health,” translated Kopeikin.

Cannon raised his glass. “And yours.”

They drank. The Russians drained their glasses. Cannon tipped his back, but left a good deal in the bottom of it. Iseabail followed his lead.

Volkov took one deck of cards and passed another to Cannon. Both men shuffled; Cannon set his deck aside for the next hand. The bidding began. The first round went ordinarily enough; after that, the Russians’ bids turned increasingly nonsensical. Cannon was no bridge expert, but he’d heard that skilled partnerships developed a sort of language during bidding. If that was the case here, they were in for a long night. He glanced at the clock, and corrected himself: not so long after all.

The bidding ended with Kopeikin, and Iseabail thought over her first move. She eventually led the jack of diamonds, and they were off to the races. The Russians said very little, despite Cannon’s attempt to engage them in further conversation, and after the second hand, he gave up.

Volkov and Kopeikin were savvy opponents, even with the vodka flowing freely, and Iseabail and Cannon found themselves a little behind in points a few hands in. They had spent most of the trip beating rank amateurs, and coming to grips with decent opposition was proving trickier than they had expected.

Twenty minutes passed in the blink of an eye, and at long last, the flow of stewards bearing many and varied confectionery delights slowed to a halt. Cannon and Iseabail won a hand, edging just a hair ahead. As Kopeikin and Iseabail shuffled, Iseabail raised an eyebrow at Cannon, and tipped her head fractionally toward the clock. Volkov refilled their glasses.

Cannon sighed. Not once had the Russians looked away long enough to spike their drinks. He would have to improvise.

“Beg pardon,” he said. “Might I ask after the washroom?”

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