* * * *
The first time I played poker with the Devil, he kicked my ass.
It was raining like a son of a bitch one early April night. Spring still has a whole bunch of mean left to it that time of year, and this night was about as mean as April gets. It was about 42 degrees out and the rain was coming down so hard the drops made angry little explosions as they hit the ground. It was just me, Johnny and Pete that night.
“What is the world coming to,” Johnny muttered into his beer. “Poker night is sacred. Sacred! Can’t even get four people together for three hours a week. Jesus H. Christ.” He opened the door and spit out into the rain. “Goddammit, we need a fourth,” he said, closing the door.
Just then an enormous clap of thunder shook the house and a bolt of lightning struck so close we could smell the ozone. The thunder roared, then died slowly away, and as it did I became aware that there was a knocking at the door. I got up and opened it, expecting Mark or Davy and wondering why of all nights they started knocking tonight.
Instead of Mark or Dave, at my door stood tall man in a rain slicker and a three-cornered hat. He had a winning smile.
“Understand you need a fourth,” said the dapper stranger.
“And you are…?” I asked in mock politeness.
“Call me Bill, if you like.”
“I will, if that’s your name.”
“Not exactly,” said he. “My card.”
He gave me a business card. On it read three words: Prince of Darkness.
“Can’t really use my real name; Bill will do fine.”
“Why can’t I use your real name?” I asked.
“Well, if you found it out, and were able to pronounce it correctly, you would have absolute power over me for 666 years.” He looked deep into me and that winning smile receded ever so slightly from his eyes. “If, however, you guessed it wrong, or even mispronounce it just a little tiny bit, well, let’s just say it wouldn’t end well for you.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, a smile curling about the side of my mouth. “What, as they say, is in a name?”
“Well, in my case, you make one tiny mistake in my name, and your soul becomes mine forever, and you will become my special plaything, receiving an eternity of my most vicious torment for your impudence.”
For a moment I got a microsecond glimpse of unfathomable power and diabolical majesty. With horrible clarity I envisioned the world of endless hopelessness that he conveyed. The breath was sucked out of my lungs.
And then, just as quickly, the moment passed, and he resumed the same avuncular expression and confident smile that he wore when I first opened the door.
“Plus, it’s kind of long. Call me Bill. May I come in?”
“Come on in!” yelled Johnny. He hadn’t made it back from the door and had been standing right behind me. “Be ye Satan or no, if ye have $50 yer a fourth.”
John was an Irishman, sort of. He was born in Ireland, and his parents left for the States about six weeks later. He had no accent whatsoever unless he was in his cups, at which time he would affect a broad, almost stereotypical brogue that sounded nothing like either of his parents. If this truly was Satan, he’d be treated to Johnny’s accent at its magically delicious best.
Satan looked at me. “How about it? Few quick games, low stakes, see how things go. Sound good?”
“Sure,” I said. “Have a seat.”
“Excellent, excellent.” He reached into his pocket and produced two perfect stacks of chips that were identical to the chips on the table already. Had anyone bothered to count them, they would have realized that he gave himself an extra $1 chip. He sat down and I started shuffling.
“What’s the game?” His Infernal Majesty asked.
“Dealer’s choice, ante and minimum bet is fifty cents. Table stakes apply; you can’t go digging in your pocket for more money. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Wild cards are ok if you call ‘em. Last hand is dealt at 11:00.” I handed the cards to Pete, who cut them. “OK, first Jack deals.” I started dealing the cards out one at a time face up. Johnny was on my immediate left, the Base Master of Torment was directly across from me and Pete was at my right.
The Jack, predictably enough, landed right at Bill’s elbow. He smiled his winning smile.
“Well well well, it seems that I deal.” He took the deck and flung it in the air. The cards rose up in a single column of cards and when they reached the ceiling they burst out in all directions creating a mushroom-cloud of cards that flew back and landed, in order, in Satan’s left hand.
“You know what?” I said. “I think one of us should shuffle.”
“Do you think that would make any difference whatsoever?” He asked.
“Hey, uh, Bill?” Pete piped up timidly.
“You, uh, you didn’t really take my soul when I pledged it to you at that Iron Maiden concert, did you?”
“No, unfortunately. You’re not on any list of mine. You must have been on acid, yes?”
Pete nodded his head.
“Ah. Doesn’t count. That’s too bad. We could use a man like you. You’d go places. OK, the game is five card draw, nothing wild.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. I was dissatisfied with the deal—wouldn’t you be?—and I was going to get some satisfaction. “If you’re gonna play cards with us, it’s going to have to be a fair deal. Promise you’ll deal them fair.”
“Well, what’s the point, then?” Bill asked. He looked around from face to face and, after a while, slumped his shoulders. “All right, all right, a fair deal,” he said morosely and started shuffling properly, but very fast. He gave the cards to Johnny to cut and dealt them out. “Five card draw, nothing wild,” said Bill.
I picked up the Ace, King, nine, and six of clubs and the ten of diamonds. Four to a flush. Not bad. Pete started the bet at $1, which I raised to 2. Johnny called. Satan looked at his cards a while.
“Any time, dude,” said Pete after a long moment.
“I’m in,” he said, and tossed $2 in the pot. Pete immediately called. I threw in my two, and Johnny called..
Bill picked up the cards and looked at Pete.
Pete was a fairly new member to the table. He started playing about four years ago when he moved down here. He was a logger in Maine, in paper country, until his leg was crushed under an oak tree and couldn’t work anymore. He grew up in St. Albans, VT, and sounded more Canadian than American. He tended to come out wit’ a few dems, deez, and dose every now and again.
The Prince of Darkness dealt three cards, from the top, to Pete. He turned to me.
“Ahh,” said Bill, letting the ghost of a smile infect the corner of his mouth. “Filling two pair, are we? Or filling a straight? Or a flush? You know, your luck probably isn’t what it usually is, playing with me and all.” He dealt a card expertly to me, with just enough spin so that it landed directly in front of me.
I bent the corner of the card and looked down. Four of clubs. I made my flush. Son of a bitch, maybe it really was a fair deal.
To be continued...