A nine, ten, jack and king. Even as his discard floated into the light and onto the table, Philip couldn't quite believe what he'd just done. He had only three rules for poker: don't drink; never bet what you can't afford to lose and never, ever, draw to an inside straight. So why had he just split a pair to go for the middle pin? He was ahead, and wouldn't admit to being flustered, but the unknown man opposite him was playing with his mind. Had to be. The guy had already blown the other two players off the table, and what else could explain his change through the game? Philip would have sworn that the guy's posture was slumped; now he sat erect. The hair that looked ruffled was now shiny and slick. A trick of the light? Maybe. Light bounced off his receding hairline, and there was the kicker: two little bumps, at first no bigger than goose-eggs, as if some brave soul had knuckled his head. Twice. And now, as the room became steadily warmer, the goose-eggs were growing, curving and sharpening to points.
Philip's opponent kept three cards for himself. He then bet the maximum - which Philip numbly matched - dealt one card to Philip and two to himself. Philip left the card face-down on the table.
'Too scared to pick it up?'
Philip noticed his voice had deepened now too. The force of it reverberated across the table and raised Philip's head. He didn't reply, but turned up the edge of his card. Please. Be a queen. Four of clubs. Oh shit.
'Time is short,' rumbled the deep voice, pushing his entire stake into the centre of the table.
'You know I can't match that,' Philip said, wondering why he even wanted to.
'Yes Philip, you can.'
The identity of the preternatural form could not be denied.
'Is this where I'm supposed to offer you my soul?'
A laugh thundered across the table, then abruptly stopped.
'How can you bet something you don't even believe you possess, Philip?'
'Then I'll fold.'
'No, Philip, you won't. You are in my debt. Payment is... expected.'
Philip swallowed the heavy stones of finality, closed his eyes and separated his life into boxes marked Keep and Lose. And he would lose. So, what part of himself could he live without? One eye? A kidney perhaps? His future happiness? He knew he could spare neither hope nor nerve. He met his opponent's eye.
'I match your bet with all of my hate; my prejudices; my intolerance; my pride and my greed.'
Silence from across the table.
His opponent then tossed his cards onto the table, smiling wryly.
'You play quite well,' he said. 'There are times when the audacity of a bluff should prevail.' He arched an eyebrow. 'And times when winning would bring no joy to the victor.'
Philip watched as a stooped man with dishevelled hair bowed with mock solemnity and dissolved into darkness.
This story was the third place winner of the Magic Casements 2006 Flash Fiction competition. First published in our Infinitas Newsletter, June 2006..
Copyright © 2006 Bob Moore.
This page last updated 16th September 2008.