The ace of diamonds was solo.
Such a shame because it would look fantastic paired with, say, an ace of clubs, spades or hearts. But this was the hand she was dealt and it was ace high, nothing more. They were down to three still standing for this round – Julia, the Trust Fund Baby, and then New Guy. His name was Hunter, he was a beanpole and his hair was short, spiky and blond. He wore khaki pants and a plaid shirt, and had twitchy fingers. Probably because there was a no-cell-phone rule during the game, and he was missing out on emails from his team, Julia guessed.
She bet he was an Internet startup type, maybe a venture capitalist. He was used to risks, he liked to take them. That’s why he’d been brought to this game, recruited specifically to play with her. But the trouble was – well, trouble for him – he laughed when he bluffed. Julia spotted it early and then tracked it. He’d done it with a pair of fives a couple rounds back that she easily beat with two jacks. He’d chuckled softly too with his king high a few hands ago.
Bless that newbie. He couldn’t even hide his tell, and Julia could kiss him if he kept this up because it made her job so much easier.
“Five hundred,” he said confidently, pushing another black chip into the pile as he cleared his throat. Julia was a panther poised for prey; muscles taut and frozen, lying in wait for the sign.
Then it came. It started in his nose, like a small, playful snort, then traveled to his belly, and finally turned into a quick, rumbly laugh.
Ah, brilliant. She could smell potential victory in the air. Of course, she could also smell the pork dumplings and pepper steak from Mr. Pong’s downstairs. When she’d first started coming here to this second floor apartment parked atop a restaurant in China Town that smelled of takeout even when pizza had been ordered for the games, she was sure she’d never remove the scent from her clothes, much less her nostrils. Perma-scent. But she’d had no problems in the laundry department and as for her nose, well, she was used to the smell that permeated every pore on Tuesday nights.
She never ate here, especially not with the bulldozer-sized heavy who stood guard over the game in the kitchen. He had a name and she knew his name, but who cared what it was? To her he was simply Skunk; he had one streak of white in his dyed black hair. His meaty fingers were jammed into the cold cut plate, pawing through the leftover slices of deli meat. Julia wanted to roll her eyes, crinkle her nose, or shoot him a hard stare.
She knew better though. For many reasons, not the least of which was the square outline of the handle of the Glock poking at the hem of his pants. He’d never pulled it, but the gun was an omnipresent reminder that a bullet could be unleashed at a moment’s notice. She shivered inside at the thought, but outside she showed no emotion, not toward Skunk, not toward Hunter the pawn, and certainly none for Trust Fund Baby when he shrugged, blew a long stream of air through his lips, and slammed his cards down. He held his hands out wide. “I’m out.”
Then there were two.
She eyed the pot, her hand, and the newbie.
Her heart thumped, and a fleet of nerves ghosted through her, but only briefly.
She had no tells. Her face was stone. She’d mastered the impassive look a long time ago. She could fake her way through anything. A perfect liar, the ninth grade school guidance counselor had declared when Julia denied punching Amelia Cartwright in the nose after Amelia had called another girl a nasty name.
“No,” Julia had said. She didn’t shuffle her feet. She didn’t look away. She’d lied like it was the truth and that had served her well ever since then.
She plucked out a black chip from her stack, then another, rolling them back and forth between the pads of her thumb and index finger, her fire-engine red nails long and lacquered. The nails were part of the look – low-cut tops, tight jeans and four-inch high black pumps for every game. The regulars knew her, but the new players never took a woman seriously, especially when she dressed like it was girls night out.
That’s why newbies were brought in. So she could hustle them. It was better that they underestimate her.
“I’ll raise you $500,” she said in an emotionless voice, sliding two chips into the pile.
This was the moment. Nerves like steel. Blood like ice.
Hunter sucked in a deep breath, like he was trying to inhale a thick malt from a thin straw. He stared longingly at the pile of chips in the middle of the table, chewed on the corner of his lip, and glanced at his cards one last time.
“I’m out,” he said, slapping the cards down on the scratched-up table that reeked of noodles, beer and regret. If tables could talk, this one could tell stories of all the bets won and lost here, all the highs and lows it witnessed.
“Then I’ll take this,” she said, not needing to reveal her ace high, as she reached across the table and gathered up the pot.
She stood, walked straight to Skunk, and handed him the chips. “I’ll cash out.”
He stuffed a rolled-up slice of bologna between his thick lips, inhaled the meat, then licked off his stubby fingers before he counted out her money. Nearly five thousand, and she wanted to sing, to shout, to soar.
“You want me to give this to Charlie?”
As if she were going anyplace else but to deliver the dough.
Still, Skunk followed her, serving as her handcuffs, huffing as he waddled down the steps.
“You played good tonight,” he said in between heavy breaths.
“Thanks,” she said, wishing she’d liked playing so well. Like she once did. She used to love poker like there was no tomorrow, a true favorite past time. Now it was tainted.
“I’m proud of you,” he said, patting her on the back.
Inside, she recoiled at his touch. On the outside, she acted like it was no big deal. Like none of this was a big deal.
A minute later, they weaved through the tables to the back of Mr. Pong’s restaurant, mostly empty at this late hour. Charlie was hunched over in a chair, swiping his finger across the screen of his iPad. He wore a sharp black suit, a white shirt and no tie. He smiled when he saw her, baring his teeth, yellowed from smoking.
The sight of him made her skin crawl.
His eyes traveled up and down her body hungrily. She pretended he wasn’t undressing her in his mind. She handed him the cash. “Here.”