“What’cha in for?” the man with the lazy eye drawled.
Peytr shrugged. “Just need to play.”
Lazy-eye shuffled the deck, his hands moving too fast for Peytr to follow. “No go. Y’ave to have stakes.”
“He’s right,” said the old man, the one Peytr had met before. Shack, or possibly Shark.
“I’ve got a pile of notes, so’s Gamin here. And Fellor…well, what’s today?”
The third man at the table produced a small box from an inside pocket. He opened it and extracted about twenty sealed sachets.
“The good stuff?”
“You ever know me have anything but?” Fellor held one of the sachets to his nose and inhaled, then let out a satisfied sigh.
Shack turned to Peytr. “So what you in for?”
Peytr swallowed. “I want to get this girl something nice,” he said, feeling his cheeks redden. “We’ve…we’ve had a falling out and I want to make it up to her. But I don’t have much…” He shrugged, and placed his handful of notes on the table.
“S’not much,” Gamin snorted. “Not worth playin’.”
“Ah, give the kid a break. You never been in love?” Shack gave Gamin a punch on the shoulder.
“Payin’ fer love. Know what that makes ‘er.”
“She’s not like that!” Peytr found his finger raised towards the man. It wavered as Gamin leered.
“Course she’s not,” said Fellor, slapping Peytr’s back hard. “Fine lad like you, she must be the real deal.”
Shack took the notes from the table and placed them back in Peytr’s hand, curling his own fingers round so that Peytr’s grip closed in on all he had.
“A noble cause, love. You’re playing for something special, lad. You’re playing for your heart.”
Peytr smiled. He hadn’t expected this man to be so poetic.
“Tha’ right, kid? Ya puttin’ yer heart out?”
Peytr nodded to Gamin. Yes, he was playing for his heart.
And the game began.
Peytr thought he knew the rules, but these three were magicians. He started strong, with a trio, but Gamin had the same, only raised. Then Fellor beat his run with a higher one. Whatever Peytr had, one of the men would beat it.
Nothing had been placed in the pot yet. Peytr assumed they were warming up, and he was too nervous to ask. Maybe these men played different rules.
It came to Peytr’s deal. The cards were warm in his hands as he shuffled, trying to ignore the sneer on Gamin’s face, and the grin on Fellor’s. He dealt quickly, keeping the cards close to the table.
“We all in?” Shack asked, and the other two nodded. Peytr nodded too, but he wasn’t sure what Shack meant.
Peytr picked up his cards, and suppressed a smile. He glanced at the others, but their expressions gave nothing away. Gamin rubbed the side of his face, but that could be his skin condition.
Gamin swapped three cards, and Fellor two. Shack seemed about to stay, then he too swapped a card. Back to Gamin, who exhaled when Peytr handed him new cards, biting his lip.
Fellor swapped one, and he placed his hand on the table, face down, and sat back. Shack stayed his hand.
Peytr, as dealer, turned his cards over, put the trio to one side and swapped the other two. The new cards added nothing, so he changed again.
The first exchange was a dud. But he still had a trio. That wasn’t too bad.
He turned the other card over. And he couldn’t hide the smile this time
He slid the card along, turning the trio into a quartet. Then he sat back.
“’S a good ‘un.”
“You beat it?”
“Nah.” Gamin turned over his low pair. “Fellor?”
Fellor shrugged. “Thought I had something, but…” He turned over his trio, mid-range.
Shack kept his eyes on Peytr’s cards. “Hand like that, on your own deal. Might look suspicious.” Then he met Peytr’s eyes with a lopsided grin. “That is, if you win.” And he turned his own cards.
High suit run. It knocked a quartet to the floor.
“Lucky bleeder,” said Fellor.
“S’pose you want yer wins now?”
“That’s the rules. Pay up, boys.”
Fellon slid four of the sachets across the table, and Gamin added a bundle of notes.
“Lad? Time to pay.”
“But…we didn’t lay anything down.”
“We don’t play like that,” Fellor said, tapping his head. “Keep it all up here.”
Peytr swallowed. “How much?” It would be too much. He’d never win her back now.
He reached into his jacket, but Shack grabbed his arm.
“Told you before. You’re not playing for money.”
There was metal in Shack’s other hand. Fellor and Gamin stood, one on either side of Peytr, and when he went to stand they pushed down forcing him back into his chair.
The blade Shack held moved level with Peytr’s head, then down to his chest, the tip hovering over a shirt button. Shack flicked his wrist, and the button flew off, exposing Peytr’s chest.
“You knew what you were playing for. You agreed.”
Peytr shook his head, terrified of moving another muscle in his body.
“You both heard him, right?”
Their fingers dug into his flesh, and the blade pressed in. Peytr looked down to see a hot trickle of red.
“We need to remind you? What was he playing for, boys?”
Peytr’s chest throbbed, but he couldn’t breathe. He thought of her and imagined that smile fading when she heard the news. Then both voices spoke at the same time, so close that he could feel the warm breath on his ears.
“Playin’ for yer heart.”
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