Usual Rules? by Simon Beasor

Editor Matty Byloos, Fiction, October 20th, 2017

"I knew that the call was definitely not mine to make..."

REBUS--What-Lia-dreams-
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Fiction by Simon Beasor.

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We often played poker together after dinner. In fact, Stan and Cathy were sad enough to watch the big poker tournaments on TV and even practice the game online to try to help them deprive me of my pennies. Of course, pennies were all that was ever at stake. There were never any great losses. Even with the unkindest cards, it was unlikely anyone would be down more than a pound or two. It was the moral victory that we all played for. Little did we know that the victory that night was going to be anything but…

For all but the most skilled players, poker is just a game. At best, average players will learn a little skill in what cards to keep and how to bluff a bad hand, but at the end of the day, it is down to the cards – and Cathy’s cards were simply appalling. For six hands she failed to make so much as a pair, and when she finally did, we both blew her away with three of a kind. Hand after hand she lost, sometimes holding nothing at all, sometimes falling just one card short of a run or a flush, and the ribbing, while all meant in fun, was clearly starting to get to her a little. Another night, in another mood and she may well have given up and retired to bed, leaving us to our gloating and malt whisky. But the more we goaded her, the more we teased, the more she seemed determined to regain control and get us back. She wanted to teach us a lesson, but without the cards, her options were limited.

Finally she seemed to see a chink of light in the darkness, keeping three cards and swapping two, and looking delighted with what she got. This was comeback time and she looked knowingly at us, trying desperately to suppress her smile. Not that she needed to; we were both too lost in the fun of Cathy-baiting to be taking the game seriously, and neither of us noticed the change in her eyes that signaled the change in her hand. Cathy steadied her voice and declared “All In.”

It was a phrase she and Stan had learned from the TV. She loved the gulp of shock it always elicited from the table. She pushed forward her few remaining pennies, leaving her left with nothing. All In. No messing about. No bluffing. This was it. Sink or swim.

“You’re bluffing,” I teased, with rather less conviction than I’d hoped for. “The way your cards have run tonight, you can’t have much more than a pair of twos!” Stan and I shared a mutually reassuring laugh, trying to make ourselves feel better by undermining her daring assault. But we both knew Cathy better than that.

“I never bluff, Alex,” Cathy measured the wickedness in her grin to knee-trembling perfection. “You should know that by now.”

“There’s a first time for everything,” said Stan, pushing over her small pile of coins with dramatic disdain. “I’m sure we can afford to find out anyway. How much is here?”

“Seventeen cents.” Cathy sugared the words to sound like seventeen million. With all her poker pride at stake, it might just as well have been. She knew she had to play it up hard if she was going to draw us in. Folding would give her only a small profit, but if we saw her, the fifty-one penny pot would put her right back in the game.

I counted out my coins, making a point of it. I knew the significance of the moment and intended to make her suffer for as long as I could. If she were going to get my cash, she would have to earn it. Eventually I pushed my coins into the center of the table and flicked the odd penny on to the top.

We both turned to Stan, but his appetite for the kill seemed less sharp, and I knew why. Beating Cathy would be very satisfying, but it also meant that she would probably go off to bed soon after, leaving him sexless. After drinking so much wine with dinner, there was simply no way she could stay awake for him, even if she wanted to. I knew things were drifting a little in that department, and he counted on the alcohol of their occasional nights off to kickstart the action. Taking Cathy out of the game could mean no games of any kind for Stan for weeks.

“Are you scared of me, Stan?” Cathy was going for the kill. “Big brave policeman scared of a poor defenseless girlie? I’ve had no hands so far, what makes you think it’s changed now?”

Stan looked at his hand as he weighed up the possibilities, then, looking confident that he would lose, counted out his coins and pushed in the pile.

“OK. I’ll see you too. What have you got, defenseless girlie?”

Cathy was delighted with her catch. She had reeled us both in and was about to do the same with the cash.

“Two pair,” she announced with a huge grin. “A pair of nines…” Stan’s face dropped. “… and another pair of nines!”

Stan’s face bounced right back up again. Four nines was a real result for them both. Or so he thought. He was halfway out of his seat to kiss her as she reached out to rake in her spoils, when I rippled the back of my fist of cards. I felt bad for the man, knowing he was well overdue some nuptials, but poker was poker and I wasn’t about to fold a winning hand just so he could get his jollies.

“You really are having the worst night, Cathy,” I said, trying to control my smarmy tone, for Stan’s sake at least. “Four of a kind and you still can’t win.”

Slowly, deliberately, painfully, I laid down ten after ten after ten after ten.

“This, I believe,” I lifted Cathy’s hands slowly off the cash, “is all mine!”

I expected Stan’s unimpressed glare and tried to shrug it off with an apologetic smile, but I was surprised by Cathy’s reaction, which was chipper. For someone who was out of the game, and if previous nights were anything to go by, off to her bed, Cathy looked rather pleased with herself. She smiled demurely as she looked down at her non-existent cash pile.

“Usual rules?” she said nonchalantly, her expression never wavering for a moment.

A cold stone dropped through my insides and I swallowed it down hard, my stomach filling with feathers as it passed through, dropping right to the core of my groin. If Stan felt the same, he wasn’t showing it. He held his eyes firmly on the space on the table from where I had just claimed my coins.

Usual Rules improved his chances of naughtiness no end, with a smorgasbord of fun almost guaranteed. But with me there, too? That was… well it wasn’t anything Stan seemed able to process right there, in that moment.

I wasn’t in any hurry to meet their eyes either, and joined Stan in staring at Cathy’s vacant penny pile. I’d invented the phrase “Usual Rules” back when I used to date Cathy, long before she married Stan. Not that it took much to get her into a compromised position back then. If anything, the two of us had played cards to slow things down from our usual passionate pace. Usual Rules had given me the opportunity to spend many an evening admiring Cathy in ways I would have missed completely under normal circumstances. But with Stan there, too?

I’d often run scenarios in my mind when the three of us played poker together. It was usually memories of nights with Cathy, but the thought that it might happen between the three of us had crossed my mind. Of course I’d never taken those thoughts seriously though. I mean, I had fantasies about most of the women I met, from checkout girls to TV stars, and I never expected any of them to come true. But this one looked like it just might.

I knew that the call was definitely not mine to make, but I didn’t dare look up at Stan to guess what his call would be…

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Artwork image credit: Rebus; you can see more of his paintings here, on NAILED.

Simon BeasorSimon Beasor prefers to keep his details private. This piece has been excerpted from his novel By Word of Mouth.

 

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Matty Byloos

Matty Byloos is Co-Publisher and a Contributing Editor for NAILED. He was born 7 days after his older twin brother, Kevin Byloos. He is the author of 2 books, including the novel in stories, ROPE ('14 SDP), and the collection of short stories, Don't Smell the Floss ('09 Write Bloody Books).