“Got the snacks?” Fiona asked, and Jhudora popped up from behind the counter, holding up a large tray set with bowls of peanuts, cans of soda, and as a centerpiece, a large crystal bowl filled with mixed potato chips.
“It’s just the three of us,” Von Roo said in a dry, menacing voice as he looked at the tray, and Jhudora nodded. “I know, I know,” she said as she placed the tray on the poked table and sat down between them.
“Pity,” Fiona said in a musing voice. “Poker isn’t quite as fun with this few players.”
“I know, I know,” Jhudora repeated, her voice sounding more tired this time. “But it’s not like we’re popular to play with.”
Fiona nodded and began dealing the first hand. Five card draw, no wilds, no limits. It wasn’t the hardest type of poker, and before she had joined this weekly poker arrangement, she would have expected such evil beings as Jhudora and Von Roo to play an evil kind of poker. Stud, at the very least.
“I don’t mind playing with you,” she said, and Jhudora nodded softly and flashed a grateful –and rare- smile.
Fiona couldn’t quite remember how she had gotten mixed into these poker nights; she wasn’t a villain or anything, she was just another average Zafara, no different from any other pet in Neopia. Even her rainbow color was mundane, showing itself as nothing more than nuances of orange and purple. Nevertheless, she had met Jhudora one day when walking home from the grocery, and somehow she had been invited to play poker with them.
“Ante up,” Von Roo repeated, his dry, gruff voice shaking Fiona from her thoughts. She looked down at the table, and saw with a hint of humor that the other two had already placed their ante.
“Something wrong?” Jhudora asked, and when Fiona looked up at her, she elaborated “You looked lost in thought.”
“No, just wondering how I ended up here,” she said, and Jhudora nodded.
“You looked rich and stupid,” Von Roo suggested, and all three of them laughed.
Fiona looked down at her cards, and suppressed a sigh. Three, five, seven, ten and ace, all spread through the suits.
“One of these days, I think they’ll add a fifth suit just to break my winning chances completely,” she said in a musing tone and added five neopoints to the ante, matching the others.
“Nah,” Jhudora said with a grin, flipping through her cards. “They’ll remove two suits just to make it more painful for me when I fail to get the last card for a flush.”
Von Roo discarded three cards, took the new cards and sorted them quickly, and Jhudora discarded one card, picking a new one from the top of the deck.
“See?” she said in a hurt and annoyed tone as she held up the ace of clubs. She then threw her cards onto the table, and picked up a white porcelain dish filled with nuts. Fiona shuffled her cards, keeping one card without looking at it, and picked up four new cards from the pile. No designated dealer; they all distrusted each other equally at this table. She looked at her new card, and gave a soft groan. A pair of tens, and neither the one she had been dealt initially. She folded, not wanting to endure Von Roo's taunts. With his luck, he had been dealt a royal flush. Von Roo took the pot, fifteen neopoints, and showed off a pair of nines.
“That’s not fair,” Fiona said as she saw the pair. “I had a pair of tens.”
“In that case; thanks,” Von Roo said, grinning softly, his long fangs showing.
“Yeah,” she agreed, and began shuffling the cards, dealing a new round. “We should find a fourth player, just so I get to see someone beat you,” she added, and Von Roo chuckled. “Not a chance.”
“Because you’re just that great?” Jhudora asked, and he shook his head, looking dolefully up at her.
“Right,” she agreed. “Because we’re evil.”
“You’re not that bad; I play with you, and I’m not evil,” Fiona interrupted, and Jhudora gave a soft laugh. “Of course you are, honey,” she said, patting Fiona's arm softly. “You’re a dentist.”
Von Roo gave a short laugh, looked down at his cards, and then laughed again. Jhudora eyed him suspiciously, and then put her cards on the table.
“Fold,” she said tiredly, and then turned back to Fiona. “Really, though, we’re lucky you wanted to play with us. Nobody dares to play with somebody who’d curse them if they win.”
Fiona nodded, looking quickly down at her cards and then began to deal a new hand, not bothering to fold.
“You’re not that bad,” Fiona reiterated, and Jhudora nodded. “Yeah,” she said, and matched Von Roo’s ante.
“It’s an occupational hazard,” Von Roo said, and Fiona looked over at him, one eyebrow raised in question, nearly disappearing under her orange hair.
“You ought to understand,” he said. “You’re a dentist; everybody thinks you’re evil.”
“Only from nine to five,” Fiona replied, and he gave a dry, rattling laughter. “Same here. People expect me to be evil. I please them, and people think I’m evil.”
“There are perks too,” Jhudora said dryly, and he nodded. “There are perks to being a dentist as well.”
“There are?” Fiona asked, and he gave her an annoyed look. “How much did it cost you when Maria needed braces?” he asked, and she laughed. “Nothing; I did it myself.” Maria was her daughter; young, bright, and with teeth that would make Von Roo’s look even.
“Exactly,” Von Roo said, and scraped in another pot; one of the large ones.
The game continued, the pots grew, and Von Roo’s side of the table looked more and more like a bank treasury for every round. After an hour, Jhudora called a time out, and began leafing through the cards.
“You’re accusing me of cheating?” Von Roo asked, sounding bemused, and Jhudora replied, “Yes,” in a disinterested tone as she held the ten of diamonds up to the light, squinting up at it.
“Is he?” Fiona asked, and Jhudora dropped the card with an annoyed grunt. “If he is, I can’t prove it,” she said, and gathered up the cards and began shuffling them again.
“I could ask some of my friends to join us,” Fiona suggested, continuing on the conversation they had trailed off from a while back in favor of discussing Von Roo with braces.
“Yes!” Jhudora exclaimed. “I’d love to have more people running from here as though their life depended on it,” she said sourly, and Fiona apologized quickly. She had invited one of her friends a while back, wanting them to be an even four players. He had fled from the house the moment he had seen Jhudora, and he still gave her suspicious glances when they passed each other.
“No, I think we’re stuck with you,” Von Roo mused, picking his teeth with a potato chip, attempting to dislodge a cashew nut which had lodged between two of his teeth.
“Not for long if you keep winning like that,” Fiona replied, grinning. “That’s a week’s salary you’ve taken so far.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll win it back,” he replied, and poked the deck. “Deal?” he added, and Jhudora began dealing the cards. Fiona picked up her cards, and groaned. “Not this time.”
“Easy, pokerface,” Von Roo replied, and she put the cards on the table. “How’s this for a poker face?” she asked, and he nodded softly. Jhudora looked through her cards, and then put them on the table. “Three eights,” she said, and scooped up a handful of neopoints which she threw onto his pile. “I’m sure you would’ve won.”
They continued playing, and Fiona noticed with some dread that her pile of neopoints was slowly diminishing as time passed. She had felt good about poker tonight, like she was destined to win, but as her pile was reduced to nothing more than a handful, she began doubting her winner luck. It might have been just a hope. A slim dream; a wish to come back home with a week’s salary extra; enough to treat Maria to something nice. Maybe even the new dress she had seen in a store window. And then it happened.
She picked up her cards, dreadfully aware she was on one of her last hands, before long she wouldn’t even afford the ante. Nine of spades. Ten of spades. Jack of spades.
“If nothing else, I might get a flush,” she thought, grinning softly to herself, not realizing she was revealing. Queen of spades. Realization struck her, and her grin faded instantly. She was suddenly very aware of herself; her uneven, short breathing, a soft tremble in her hands, and a thin wetness in her fur which might be sweat. She forced herself to breathe normally, and as she picked up her last card, her breath gave another heavy lurch which she fought to hide.
King of spades.
She looked over at the others, careful not to look excited –careful not to whoop in pleasure- and could help but smile. Von Roo was looking through his cards with a dismayed look. Jhudora had pushed her cards aside, and sat rooting through the large bowl of potato chips, digging through the salted ones to find the barbeque spiced ones hidden in the mix like miniature treasure.
“I haven’t folded,” Jhudora said as she noticed Fiona looking at her. “Not yet, at least.”
“Bet fifty,” Fiona said, and instantly regretted this move. Was this bet too high? Had she given away her cards?
“See you,” Von Roo said dryly, pushing his money onto the pot. Jhudora considered, and then pushed her own share of the money into the pot. Fiona patted her cards, and Von Roo raised his eyebrows at her in surprise. “Good cards, then?” he asked, and she shook her head.
“I’m bluffing,” she said, fighting to keep her voice even.
Von Roo nodded, and said in a humorless tone, “I’ll see your bluff then. No cards for me either.”
Jhudora picked four new cards, and the betting continued. Up fifty. Up a hundred. Up another hundred.
“I can’t swing this,” Fiona said sadly as she meant to raise the bet again. Her money was gone; nothing but spare change left.
“It’s okay,” Jhudora said, pushing her own pile of money over to her.
“Really?” Fiona said, surprised, and she laughed. “No, it’s a loan.”
“I can’t do that; what if I can’t pay you back?” Fiona asked, and Jhudora shrugged. “Zafara ears are valuable,” she said, and Von Roo gave a surprised laugh. Fiona put her cards on the table, suddenly feeling sick. She finally had a hand worth betting on, and she didn’t have anything left to bet with.
“It’s a joke,” Jhudora said, sounding annoyed. “I’m sure you can pay back in time. If not, it’ll be worth it just to see you knock him down a peg or two.”
Fiona looked suspiciously down at the pile of money offered to her, and Jhudora sighed. “You don’t trust me?” she asked, and Fiona laughed. “Of course not; you’re evil.”
“Yeah, just take the money,” she replied, and Fiona did. She picked her cards back up, holding them close to her chest as she picked money out of the money pile. She considered for a second, and then picked another two hundred out of the pile, looking up at Jhudora in question.
“Go!” Jhudora said in an annoyed tone, and she nodded softly, adding the money to the pot. Von Roo raised, and Jhudora matched his raise. The circle continued twice; raise, raise, raise.
“This is too rich for me,” Jhudora said, throwing her cards onto the pot. Fiona raised, and looked up at Jhudora as she watched the card game with more interest than when she had played. A sinking feeling had filled her chest; something told her this was a trap. She didn’t know how, or even if it was possible, but as the sinking feeling moved down through her stomach, she became certain the game was fixed. Von Roo raised, and she matched his raise. The feeling was stronger, and the pot was high enough to make her feel queasy. Just what she had borrowed from Jhudora was enough to feed her and Maria for a week.
The game continued, and the raises grew drastically in size. Only five rounds later, she didn’t have to count Jhudora’s pile of money; she could tell by the size that the entire pile was enough for just one more round.
“Done?” Von Roo asked, grinning softly, his vampiric features more pronounced than ever. Fiona shrugged, and said, “Out of money.”
“A full month’s salary,” Von Roo mused. “Three weeks of salary borrowed from Jhudora.”
Fiona nodded, the cards held in her hand feeling warm and uncomfortable. A straight flush wasn’t that great a hand anymore. An ace high straight flush could beat her. There were three of those left in the stack. A royal straight flush would beat her. Three of those as well. One to six odds against her.
“We could add your house to the pot,” Von Roo suggested, and she gave a startled laugh. “My house?” she asked, and he nodded softly, shining a warm smile up at her, and she knew for certain. He had beaten her. She slowly realized an ace high straight flush was a royal straight flush, and wondered why she was even playing the game.
“Which is it?” she asked. “Clubs?”
Von Roo didn’t ask what she meant. Instead, he put his cards down on the table, face up. “Diamonds,” he said, and Jhudora drew a surprised gasp as she looked down at his cards. Royal straight flush. Yet the gasp was wrong. It seemed off, somehow.
“You were in on it, weren’t you?” Fiona asked, and Jhudora shook her head. “No, I thought he was bluffing,” she said. “That stinks, though.”
Fiona nodded softly, looking down at the pot. A full month’s salary. She would have to work overtime next month just to have a chance at paying back what she had borrowed. Her stomach twisted; knotting itself up in painful lumps, and far away, she felt tears fill her eyes. What would Maria say? Maria was young, and even though she was bright, would she understand that it wasn’t her fault she wouldn’t get the new dress she had pointed out?
“It’s getting early,” Von Roo said, looking out the window. “Sun’s rising.”
“No,” Fiona said softly. He turned to look at her, his lips rising in an amused grin, and she gestured at the deck of cards. “Another round. Give me a chance to earn it back.” She turned to Jhudora, her eyes blazing with determination, and asked “You’ll lend me, right? I have to earn it back. Maria...” She trailed off, not sure what she wanted to say, and Jhudora shook her head.
“Nothing personal, of course,” she explained. “I just don’t want you to risk more.”
“But...” Fiona began, the tears now running freely, and she shook her head. “Nothing more,” she reiterated, overriding Fiona’s feeble protest.
Von Roo cast another look out the window, seeming not to notice the exchange going on behind him, and then turned to the table, scooping his pile of money into a leather bag. “I’m off,” he said, giving them both a nod. “Gotta stay ahead of the sun.”
Fiona looked up at him, ready to plea for another chance to win her money back, and he shook his head. “Take the pot,” he said. “Should cover the both of you.”
“What?” Fiona asked, and he pointed at the table, the pile of money accumulated during their last game still sitting like a pirate treasure on the middle of the table. “Take it,” he said, and she looked disbelievingly up at him. “You’re joking!” she said, and he shook his head.
“That’s...” she began, and when words failed her, she got up and hugged him. He bore this uncomfortably, and when she let go of him, Jhudora said, “See, you’re not that evil after all.”
“I am,” he replied. “I like beating her; I’m just making sure she has a reason to return.” He turned to Fiona, and asked, “See you next Tuesday, then?” He then walked out of the door without waiting for an answer, and she watched after him long after he had disappeared into the dark. Watching the spot where his silhouette had vanished, she thought to herself that he had lied. He wasn’t that evil after all.