tagErotic CouplingsGame of Chance

Game of Chance

bydr_mabeuse©

The doors on the beach side of the café looked out on a scene so bright that all you could see were the broad slashes of white sand and turquoise water . It was no wonder Bogdan kept his sunglasses on. He thought he was being slick, that I couldn't read his pupils that way, but he was facing the beach and the light was pouring in on him. I could see his the reflection of his hole cards in the curved iridescent lenses of his Serengeti Arezzo's every time he peeked at them: Jack of hearts and four of clubs.

It didn't really matter, because I was going to let him win this one anyhow. Still, it was gratifying to see that he was bluffing with that shit hand. After ten hours of cards, the man was desperate.

"Twenty to me, huh?"

I put my hands together and blew through them as if I were cold, pretending to think about it. It was a signal I'd been sending out all night—a hook, a phony tell—something I wanted him to recognize as a nervous habit I had that meant I was bluffing. I was pretty sure he'd already bought it. He wasn't really dumb. Just dumb enough to think he was smart..

"Too rich for me," I said, and threw my cards down. "But what'd you have?"

I reached for his cards like an eager tinhorn and he grabbed my wrist. His smile had worn razor thin over the course of the night; his eyes were exhausted but still hard enough to flash cruel for an instant over his tints before they warmed to the old charmer look.

"Ah-ah-ah!" he warned. "No looking."

"Oh right, sorry. I forgot."

It was pretty corny, pretending I was such a beginner that I thought I could just look at his hand, and it was kind of late to try and convince him that I was dumb. I was up about two thousand Euros now, mostly his money, and I was trying my damnedest to either break him completely or just muscle him out once and for all. Either way, I wanted out of this two-man game because I was up and because I was sick of him. He had nothing left to bet anymore, but he didn't know when to quit; just kept on nickel and diming, hanging on by his fingernails. I don't like that kind of play, and I didn't like Bogdan Kerosivic.

He and his pals Ivor and Dimmy had attached themselves to us last night in the hotel casino. A chance meeting and one I certainly didn't intend, but once Bogdan found out I was from Chicago, we were stuck. He'd gone to school there, and instantly we were old pals. Bogdan started pushing coke spoons under our noses and talking up his gangster connections, connections with this guy Grecco and his ties to the Ozalan Turkish mafia. Josh and I had just dropped 50 kilos of hash off in Bari, Montenegro and I knew something about Ozalan and these guys didn't seem like much to me. Despite Bogdan's come on, they'd made us for a couple of American marks and were out to take us.

If we'd been able to get alone with Bogdan for five minutes we could have put an end to that nonsense and taken care of everything, but his pals and their pals were always around in a big crowd, and then Josh started playing cards with these guys and I got sucked in, and right away broke a tooth on Bogdan. He got under my skin and wouldn't get out and so here were at eight in the morning still playing, dragging this thing out, stumbling along to the bitter end.

Ivor had gone home hours ago and Dmitri was asleep at the table, sweat glistening on hs forehead. Josh had written the whole night off back before midnight and was asleep at the hotel, and I was stuck with trying to get Bogdan off my hands. He was too stubborn to let me quit and too dumb to quit himself, so I kept alternating between wanting to let him win a couple hands to get him off my back and wanting to clean the lint from the fucker's pockets.

"That's enough for me," I tried again, as though losing 80 Euros on this hand had wiped me out and evened things up between us. "I'm packing it in."

"No! Wait! You can't, Jeffrey. I'm just hitting my stride."

"Stride? Fuck, Bogdan. We've been playing for ten hours. That's fucking enough." I put my cigarettes in my pocket and started scraping up my cash.

Bogdan was a big coarse guy with a gap between his front teeth. After ten hours of losing at cards and snorting coke, he looked rumpled and damp and flushed. "Come on. Another hand. My wife's going to meet me here any minute. We'll play till she gets here. Ten, fifteen minutes at the most."

"She know how much you lost?"

"Easy come, easy go," he said. "I can handle her. She likes to come down here for the food. You should try it. Their brioche is really excellent. How about some breakfast? American style?"

"No. But I could go for a burger with a slice of raw onion about now."

It was a nice place really. A café down on the ancient boardwalk that ran along the beach, where men played cards and backgammon and dominoes, some for money, some for fun. One side faced the boardwalk, the other faced the street, and the other two sides looked out at the harbour with the yachts and sailboats bobbing in the blue Adriatic. Bogdan had brought us down here to finish our game, but also to show us his pride and joy, an 18 foot ketch that looked pretty sad and bedragled down here among the yachts. He didn't look like a sailor.

I was sitting opposite him, facing the main tourist drag that ran outside. All the doors were open to the breeze, the ceiling fans spun and the waiters brought us water and beer and coffee without a word as we played. The place smelled of tanning butter and furniture wax and cigars, all layered above the coppery-clean scent of the sea. It would have been a nice place if I hadn't been so tired.

But I was tired. Tired of Bogdan's company and tired of looking at cards and I just wanted to get rid of him. I tried to lose. If I didn't beat a jack in the deal I just folded and let Boggy have the ante, but even like this he had shit luck. I didn't want his money anymore. He didn't have anything I wanted. I sat back and looked out at the street.

There was a blonde girl in a short, royal-blue dress walking quickly towards the café in the morning light, a big bag on her shoulder, her long legs scissoring up the distance. She hopped the curb on those legs, dodged the cars that honked and whistled. She was a joy to watch, a woman who knew how to be a woman, very slim, very erect, very European in a way that lifted my heart, then dropped it just as fast as I realized it could only be Bogdan's wife. Poetic justice demanded it. This greasy little hustler would be married to the beauty of the world.

She came into the café and stood getting her bearings, then walked over. As soon as our eyes met something clicked, clunked, and locked into place, like the door on a big, iron safe. I felt the wheels of destiny turning, the big wheel with the little wheels inside, and my stomach ejected into my chest. Worse, I knew that the same thing was happening to her. I saw the little hitch in her step when she laid eyes on me, almost like she knew me. It was like we shared the same network, like we were already connected.

She walked over to the table, her step a bit more hesitant now, both hands on the strap of her bag. She gave me a cautious smile, then bent and kissed Bogdan on his swarthy cheek.

Bogdan winced—he was shuffling for one last hand—and made introductions with his eyes. "Alena, this is Jeffrey, my new American friend. Jeffrey, my wife Alena."

I stood and extended my hand. I haven't stood up for an introduction since they made me do it in Sunday school, but this time I did it automatically, without thinking.

She was a beautiful girl, but more than that, she was my kind of beautiful, with big brown eyes with a hint of sadness in them, and a kind of pouty Slavic mouth that I just wanted to suck on; a lavish mane of blonde hair, fine features and the bearing to go with it: regal. There was an animal leanness and grace about her, and intelligence in her eyes. I could tell exactly what she was thinking when she shook my hand. She was suddenly wary, on her guard against me, as if she knew intuitively that I was dangerous.

Just like that the roof fell in on me. Knowing what I knew about Bogdan, my heart went out to her, but there was nothing I could do, nothing I could say.

She sat and tried to smile, said hello to Dimmy, who grunted and went back to sleep, and glanced at the pile of money still on the table in front of me, then at Bogdan's pile, then she looked at me.

Again I could read her thoughts as clearly as if she'd written them on her face. Her look said she apologized for her husband; she was ashamed of him, but.that he was her husband after all. Her look asked me not to interfere. Her look begged me not to interfere.

"Come on," Bogdan said, already dealing the cards. "A half hour more. Maybe some of the morning crowd will sit in."

Always one more. I played, just to keep them there. I lost as best I could, too, wanting to build him back up in her eyes and not look like a selfish asshole, but by now Bogdan was exhausted and drunk and playing on sheer stubbornness. He threw away hand after hand, betting wildly, even misreading his cards. Alena ordered a mineral water and gave me a pained look when I tried to pay for it.

The tension grew: tension that Bogdan was going to get drunk and do something ugly; unspoken tension between Alena and me. It built in the air like a thunderhead. She finally put on her sunglasses and that gave me some relief because I couldn't see what she was looking at. But I knew. I could feel it. I could feel it too when she crossed her legs, one knee over the other. She had long, sinuous legs, smooth and tan. They looked like honey dripping from a spoon.

I won a hand, a big one, and Alena got up and walked over to the bar rather than see me scoop up all those bills. As tired and exhausted as Bogdan was, he was still a hustler and not too far gone to miss a last chance, and not above grabbing for it. He caught me glancing at her and said, "She's nice, huh?"

I looked at him and he grinned. "I'm not so dumb. I know what I see. You like her, huh? She likes you too. Give me 500 euros and we'll play for the rest, your money against my wife."

Josh was back at the room asleep. Dimmy was passed out again in his chair. Bogdan sat there grinning at me. It was a hateful sight.

"I don't think so," I said. "Cut the cards."

"I'm serious. We'll play for her."

"Maybe you should ask her what she thinks," I said.

Bogdan put his glasses up on his head so I could see his red and watery eyes. "She'll do what I say. I've been watching you two. Give me 500 e's credit and we'll play for her. You clean me out, you get her for a night. I win, then we're friends again."

"Bullshit."

His smile broadened. "This isn't Wisconsin, my friend. She'll do what I tell her to. Now what do you say? She's as good as she looks."

"You're slime," I said.

He shrugged and lowered his glasses. "You are too, my friend."

I'd been up all night and Josh and I had planned to finish up our business here and leave for Athens that afternoon. I couldn't afford to get involved with anyone, least of all her. But I was sick of the sight of cards and the feel of the chair in my back, sick of Bogdan's rat-faced smile and the feel of his money between my fingers, and she looked so good standing there at the bar, so cool and clean and refreshing.

I didn't believe it, of course. It was a ridiculous idea, but a fascinating one.

I pushed 500 euros at him and said, "Deal."

I started drinking wine as we played. It was still early morning, but the wine tasted very good, and I wanted to get drunk. I wanted to lose and I wanted to win and I didn't know what I wanted: maybe just get drunk, I guess. Instead of making the game interesting, the bet kind of nauseated me, but not Bogdan. Like the classic problem gambler, now that his life and marriage were on the line he grew excited and even joyful, calling for brandy and cigars. He'd found the crack in my armor. He'd finally found something he had that I wanted.

Alena came back and stood behind his chair and she knew something was up. Bogdan smiled and rubbed his hands together and made no secret of it anyhow. He reached up and took one of her hands and rubbed his face against it. "Jeffrey and I are playing for you now, darling," he said. "What do you think of that?"

She gave his hand a little jerk. "Don't even joke!"

"Oh, it's no joke. I lose, and you spend the night with him. I win, I get all our money back."

He laughed and shuffled the cards. I couldn't tell whether she believed him or not, or whether she thought it was a tasteless joke and that was bad enough, but she sat down again and looked out at the harbor, her sunglasses on her head. She tried to make herself disappear, which was impossible. That dress looked so good on her.

It was surreal. We played 7-card stud. He won the first two hands and then I called for a new deck because the cards were greasy and God knows how he might have marked them. Alena sat back ignoring us both, but then the seriousness of our play must have sunk in, or something convinced her this was for real because she began to glare. She was a proud and beautiful girl, and it bothered me to see her treated like this, but not so much that I didn't want to win.

I took a couple hands but she didn't look at me, only at him, at his face, his cards, and his money. It wasn't until he lost a big pot—staying in again chasing a straight when he should have folded—that she ventured a look at me. It was a look of hatred, but somehow I knew it wasn't directed at me. She wanted me to win. She wanted me to do whatever it took to hurt him.

After a hand where I took 120 E's from him, she turned to Bogdan. "He's going to win, Bogdan. He's better than you."

He was shuffling the cards. "Is that right? Then you'd better run home and get a nightie."

I reached over and covered his hands with mine. "We both shuffle," I said, He was doing dummy shuffles and bending cards, reduced to crap like that.

It went on. Dimmy woke up and watched, making small talk with Bogdan. Supposedly, he didn't know what we were playing for, but I doubted it. I made him leave the table and sit where I could watch him. Alena sat there with her legs and arms tied in a knot, humiliated and angry. The lunch time crowd started to arrive and the smell of garlic and frying fish started drifting from the kitchen. We played on in our own little cocoon

On a hand Bogdan dealt I pulled a straight on the seventh card. It had been tight and there was a big pot and I had nothing showing but a small pair. I figured Bogdan for two pair or three of a kind because he kept on raising my bets. It was perfect.

I pushed him at the end, betting his limit as if I were trying to money him out. I left it to him to call or fold. If he called and lost, it was all over.

He looked at me and looked at his cards as his cigar burned in his fingers.

I sat back with a look of indifference on my face that wouldn't have fooled anyone, then I leaned forward. I put my hands together and blew through them like I was cold. It was time to see if the hook had set.

Bogdan pretended to think it over. He pursed his lips and sroked his chin, looked at his hole cards again and said, "Call," .

I laid down for him. "Straight. Six high."

He sat still for a moment, looking at the cards as if he'd suddenly forgotten how to count. He smiled, stood up and took out his handkerchief and blew his nose. He'd been doing a lot of coke and his nose started to bleed a little. He dabbed at it, knocked back the last of his brandy and tried to smile again. Dimmy came over, but I figured they wouldn't try anything with all these people around. It had been an clean win.

"Well," he said. "You're a very lucky man."

"Sometimes."

I stood up too, making a lot of noise so that people would turn to look. I wanted to be noticed.

He dabbed at his nose. "When do you want her?"

Alena reached for that big bag she'd brought and I thought she was going to hit him with it. "You son of a—"

"I'll take her now."

"Now?" He laughed once. "You've been up all night, my friend. You should get some rest."

"Now."

He shrugged and gestured to her with his head, but Alena was already on her feet. She turned the bag upside down on the table and all this crap fell out: makeup and letters and pill bottles, soap and underwear and a toothbrush and socks. They all fell out on top of the cards and money and dirty ashtrays.

She'd brought him clean socks and toiletries so he could freshen up, and he'd just lost her in a card game.

She turned to me. "Let's go. This is making me sick."

$ $ $

We walked away from the café fast. She was angry, so I just kept my mouth shut. I was hoping she'd stay angry, so angry that she'd fuck me out of spite.

But as soon as the card game was left behind, I realized how absurd the whole thing was. She was a princess, and I really didn't think she was about to come to my hotel and fuck me just because her oaf of a husband had made a drunken bet. I could tell she felt she owed me an apology, though, and so she offered to help me find my way back to my hotel. That was good enough for me. I was lost and besides, it was the only hold I had on her.

"Where are you staying? " she asked. "Do you have a car?"

"No. Dmitiri drove. I'm staying at the Metropole."

"Does he know that's where you are?"

"I don't know. What difference does it make?"

"He can be dangerous when he drinks."

I didn't think Bogdan was much of a threat, besides, she was worth it. "I'm not worried."

She stared at me for a moment, trying to read me. She failed and shrugged it off. "All right. I'll walk you to the Metrople. It's not far. I want to get away from here anyway."

Her dress left her back bare. It was an exceptionally lovely back. I loved the way she walked, too—fast, determined, and now, after her insult, with her head high and back straight. Those long legs ate up the sidewalk and I had to hustle to keep up with her. She was an imposing beauty, and a couple times I saw men on the street look away when she dealt them a pre-emptive strike with her eyes. I couldn't imagine how she had ended up with Bogdan

The Metropole was an old, renovated pensione and very charming, set back in a courtyard filled with oleander and orange trees. It had an ancient concierge and the kind of wrought iron elevator that you don't see anymore, and had been recommended to us as the kind of place that was quiet and off the tourist track, the kind of place that the local heavy hitters favored: quiet, luxurious, circumspect.

"I'll leave you here," she said as we stepped into the lobby. She lowered her head. "I apologize for what happened, but my husband... Well, I'm sorry we had to meet like this."

"Wait a minute," I said. "You forget. I won you. You're mine for the night."

She smiled weakly, as if acknowledging a bad joke. "Please, don't be silly."

"Silly nothing. That was a legitimate bet. If I'd lost, he would have taken my money. Why should I put my ass on the line for nothing?"

She got indignant. She still had plenty of anger left over for me. "Keep your voice down. I don't belong to you or anyone. Just who do you think you are anyhow?".

It was the way she looked at me that did it, that dismissive, condescending face. So many times I'd run into that same look, that same tone of voice from women just like her.

"You really don't know, do you?" I asked.

She showed me an elaborately bored face and that did it. I felt that sudden surge of adrenalin I always get before a high-stakes bluff and I decided to go for it.

"You know a man named Grecco?"

It worked. She looked at me and I could see the fear in her face now. It felt good.

"Well he works for us. When my people say 'jump' he asks 'how high'. We chew up bugs like your Bogdan for breakfast, Alena, and it just so happens your boy's in a shitload of trouble already, you understand? Now, you want to come upstairs and talk about it? Or do you want me to go in and make a phone call?"

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bydr_mabeuse© 42 comments/ 89392 views/ 15 favorites

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