A Devilish Game
November 1, 2012
— 666, cheating at cards, demons playing poker, devil in disguise, devil's number, halloween short story, halloween story, scary story, unique poker game
By Jude Ellery
This is the second in a series of Halloween specials here on strange bOUnce. The brief was simple: all stories must begin with the same opening line, and revolve around a poker game played by demons. Writers were encouraged to then let their imagination decide the rest, imprinting their own unique style on their version of this seasonal short story.
They sat around the poker table.
An elongated chin, a knotted grey beard, a wrinkled neck and a hunched back all inched closer to the action as bums shuffled to the edge of their seats. Four sets of eyes locked onto the centre of the black baize, where a cascade of blue chips had just scattered the pot. “All in”, the raiser had announced.
The demons were in unusually expansive dress for their weekly Wednesday night card game — but this was an unusual occasion. Hallowe’en fell midweek this year, and Master had sent out a memorandum declaring this week the game would take place in a casino on the mortal plane. He’d asked them to be on their best behaviour too — he’d be watching them closely. His reasons for this special event were as yet undisclosed, but these four knew better than to question his command, and thus the vile creatures, surfacing from their lairs beneath each corner of the world, were veiled in humanoid costumes each depicting a classic mythological monster: a witch, a warlock, a ghoul and a mummy.
It was Runt, being both physically and mentally weaker than the others, who had chosen the easiest disguise, the mummy. “What a miserable excuse you are!” Claw had screamed at the quivering demon upon his arrival. “No imagination, no panache. All I can say in your favour is those rags conceal your pathetic pale red hide, so at least it’s an improvement on your usual look.”
Claw herself, kitted out as a witch with even longer talons than she usually boasted, was the raiser who had just committed her entire stack. She was a prolific bluffer, but something in the way she had flung her bet down exuded such confidence that Porcinal — the warlock — and Gollum — the ghoul — simply had to lay down strong hands. The former had an open-ended straight draw, and the latter was sitting on two pairs, but with only the river to fall now, neither could allow themselves to be drawn into such a massive commitment. Beside Runt’s short stack and Claw’s mini empire of plastic pawns, the other two demons shared the chips evenly. Calling this bet would have them all in, too.
So, the action was on Runt. He squinted through his mildewed bandages at the two cards he held in his one good hand: they unfortunately hadn’t transformed into anything better since he’d last consulted them. The freshly revealed turn card, a King, hadn’t helped his cause one bit. Claw’s chips outnumbered his by six to one. The larger demon had been at her bullying best all evening and had laughed loudest every time she had the pleasure of scraping Runt’s chips in her direction — which had happened no less than thirteen times thus far.
Runt whispered a question to the seemingly faceless, hooded dealer — the Grim Reaper sans scythe, matching the rest of the costumed croupiers who had all made the effort for this extra special evening. In return, the dealer proffered a wristwatch. This was it then, the perfect hand to gain revenge.
“Almost midnight,” Runt announced to the others, who had lost all sense of time. “I… call,” he muttered nervously, almost inaudibly, but his voice grew bolder when he saw Porcinal and Gollum’s faces contort into supportive, excited grins across the oval table. “In fact, I’ll raise you, too.”
In answer to his opponents’ frowns, the little mummy delved into his tightly wrapped, skinny frame and produced two slimy nuggets, which he skittled onto the table. They bumbled across the colourful array of chips and settled in front of Claw, where they stared up at her wart-ridden face in all their bloodshot glory.
Eyes. Red eyes.
“One to match your stack, and the other for the raise.”
Red eyes were beyond rare. Red eyes belonged to demons, and these two were clearly a matching pair, almost as fresh as the eight that gazed upon them now. “Plucked from the face of a live one,” Runt gleamed. “He’s still, um… looking for them as we speak.”
By this point, a small crowd of mortals had gathered around the table, enthralled and disgusted in equal measure by this strange display. While they were oblivious to the players’ identities, they could sense something special was going down. At Runt’s last remark a few of them giggled nervously, others shuddered, and one young lady covered her mouth.
Claw loved eyeballs almost as much as fat old Porcinal, and despite holding only a semi-bluff (the other two demons’ ability to read her had evidently been diminished by the size of her stack yet again) she could not let this opportunity pass. She craned her neck toward the dealer, silently questioning whether the casino would allow this manipulation of the rules. Money — or eyeballs — could never join the table mid-hand, the demons all knew that.
But this was Hallowe’en.
The faceless dealer nodded his consent.
Four eyeballs were sourced from Claw’s portable cauldron and slammed down onto the baize, flattening slightly under her palm but springing back to an almost spherical shape when she revealed their colour. Blues. Not nearly as rare as a demon’s reds, and not quite as fresh either, but belonging to “a couple of fresh young Swedish virgins”, as their new owner announced with a sneer, they roughly matched up to Runt’s offering.
More uncertain murmurs emanated from the crowd, which was growing quickly. A couple of the onlookers exchanged glances and chinese whispers spread through them like wildfire. Once the chattering ceased, all seemed content to suspend their disbelief and simply enjoy the show.
With both demons having committed their riches to the hand, the river card was all that stood between one of them and a delightful snack. First though, a card had to be peeled from the deck and burned — and this being Hallowe’en, the Grim Reaper dealer took this instruction literally, striking a match and setting about the card’s transformation from solid to gas in a beautiful display of pyrotechnics. The smoke gathered momentarily in the shape of an ornate ‘6’, then dispersed again to make its way up to the ceiling to join its predecessors. Revealing burnt cards was another anomaly of the night’s proceedings, at which the onlookers all “oohed” and “ahhed”, now thoroughly in the spirit of the thing.
Runt, though, could not hide his alarm at this card’s identity. Since he was all in, he could rest his poker face now anyhow. Claw, seeing Runt’s dismay, rose from her seat and folded her cloaked arms confidently. Evidently a six would have completed Runt’s hand.
The preliminaries out of the way, the river now came, the moment of truth. Everyone was silent. With a flourish, the Grim Reaper laid down the card.
Runt whooped with delight, turning even the heads of punters on nearby tables who had not joined the crowd. Runt’s hunch — the one in his belly not his shoulders — had been right after all.
Claw slammed down a pair of aces and spat out her disgust. “Cheat! You filthy little… you scrawny, despicable… you dishonourable, disgusting, snotty, pathetic creature!” The fire in her belly had risen to her eyes and was flaming from her fingertips, too. She raised both hands high above her pointed hat, then brought them down sharply, aiming at poor Runt who was by now cowering behind his stool.
And that’s when the Grim Reaper stepped in.
The robed dealer, who had procured a long bladed staff from somewhere to complete his costume, mirrored Claw, raising the weapon high above his head. The casino’s lights were now illuminating the table on full beam, and in the dark depths of the dealer’s hooded face two short horns and a goatee beard were visible.
After all, he had said he’d be watching over them ever so closely.
The scythe whistled serenely as it sliced old Claw’s sorry head from her shoulders, rudely interrupting her spell in its infancy. Gasps came from the crowd and the young lady clasped her mouth with both hands now.
Master spoke: “No magic in the mortal realm, you all know the rules: punishable by execution. Getting far too big for her boots was old Claw, but I needed an excuse to put her to the scythe or else him up there would be holding yet another of his blasted tribunals. Why Mr High And Mighty gives a damn what I do to my own, only he knows…” He turned his attention to Runt, who was still hiding under his stool and bracing himself for the fireball which never came. “Many thanks to this little fellow for finally growing some goolies and providing that excuse.”
Runt rose from his foetal position and, realising he was still in one piece, for the second time that night whispered a question to the hooded figure.
“They think it’s a show,” Master quietly replied with a wicked grin, pointing a skeletal finger at a poster tacked on the end of a row of one-armed bandits, boldly announcing a SPECIAL GUEST MIDNIGHT PERFORMANCE.
With that, the “dealer” vanished in a cloud of smoke, to the amazement and rapturous applause of the audience. All that was left of the demons’ master was a crumpled robe and his expensive wristwatch, sitting face down on the side of the table between two piles of chips. Porcinal — whose greed was not restricted to food alone — picked it up and, before pocketing it, glanced at the time.
The electronic display read 00.06. Above that, slightly smaller, it showed three more digits: 6.6.6.
Some hunches are based on more than just superstition. Seriously, you didn’t really think Satan would play by the rules, did you?
A Devilish Game by Jude Ellery is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License