"Six of skulls, six of gold, and four of phalluses," said the dealer,
his words slurred slightly by his tusk-like fangs. "Hit or stay?"
player took another drag off his cigarette and said nothing. The cards
lay sprawled on the table of bone in front of him. She could not
recognize their symbols and wasn't sure she wanted to, but she felt
reluctant to look away. "John?" She'd been watching him for the past
half hour as he'd deftly traded cards away and accumulated others,
bringing them all together into this hand. "What game are you playing?"
leaned forward, blue eyes gleaming against the red light around them,
and examined his cards. "Blackjack," he said after a moment.
looked at him. He looked back, radiating innocence she could almost
feel. She lifted a brow. Finally, he gave her his best charming smile
and said, "'strue. Blackjack, love, Dante's rules."
"Hit or stay?" the dealer rasped.
looked down at his cards again. Then he flicked his cigarette onto a
bloody mass of entrails near his feet, leaned over to pick up one of
the everburning torches of the damned, and lit a new cigarette off it.
The dealer looked at him expressionlessly.
"Let me guess," she said in a low voice, "the aim is three sixes."
complicated than that, really," he said, blowing smoke in the waiting
dealer's dull black eyes, "but that's not a bad summary for a new
player. I'll make a champion out of you yet."
She looked at his
cards, trying not to focus too much on the symbols. A six, a six, and a
four. "You're pretty close," she remarked. "What happens if you go
"On this level of Hell?" He tapped ash into a broken skull.
"You know the term 'nutcracker'? Like that, only with my soul. Joke's
on them, there's not much in there to crack." A beat. "Also the actual
nuts, too," he said with less enthusiasm. Then he grinned and looked
back at the dealer. "I said hit me, mate!"
The dealer stared at him
for a moment longer, then shrugged (quite an undertaking for a being of
his breadth) and picked up a card. It took her a second to realize she
was holding her breath.
Moments like this had made her fall in love
with him. It was an almost dizzying feeling, being so close to the
edge, not knowing if the ground would give out from under your feet at
And he was smiling instead of screaming.
set the card down. "Two of phalluses," he said flatly. The new card
shimmered briefly, then melted into one of the others. Now he had the
six of skulls, the six of gold, and the six of phalluses.
say anything for a moment, didn't even do anything. Then he exhaled
(had he too been holding his breath?) a cloud of smoke in the dealer's
face. "There you are, mate," he said. "Now where's that key to the next
circle I was promised?"
The dealer scowled, or at least did
something with his bulky brow, and flipped something slick and
squirming at the player. He caught it deftly and dropped it into his
pocket with a brief grimace. "Come on, love, let's go."
Her heart was beating so fast. "You know, I love you," she said.
He grinned and leaned down to kiss her.
And he thought: If the plan works, she'll be dead by this time tomorrow.
He would hurt then. Now, in the depths of Hell, he was dancing.