High Stakes – a story from the Gamblers’ Frontier

Watching Ernie shuffle cards hurt Lizzie. It wasn’t that she wanted to hold them in her own hands, to feel the flow of magic through the deck. It was the sheer clumsiness of the man, the ungainly way he mashed the cards together. Watching someone make such a mess was unbearable.

The doors of the saloon swung open. Alfonse King stepped inside, his gleaming shoes clacking against the floorboards. He twirled the end of his moustache between his fingers. Behind him came Figgis in a crumpled old shirt, followed by half a dozen matching thugs, all wearing six-shooters.

“You came.” Lizzie pushed the empty seat away from the table. Alfonse dusted it off with a handkerchief before sitting down.

“I hear you beat the men hunting you,” Alfonse said. “I figure now you’ll get bored and start making me trouble. So I’m offering you the chance to leave town.”

“Just me?” Lizzie asked.

“I’ll release you from the spell so you can move on,” Alfonse said. “Let the past be the past.”

“Not interested,” Lizzie said, looking around the table. Laughing Wolf gave her a slow nod. Ernie just focused on the cards.

“But my offer still stands. One game, high stakes. If I win, you let down the barrier trapping folks here. If you win, I’ll marry you.”

“You said you’d marry me before.” Alfonse’s tone was bitter.

“This time I’ll be bound by my own magic,” Lizzie said. “You can put that old humiliation behind you.”

“What’s his stake?” Alfonse pointed at Laughing Wolf.

“My tribe’s knowledge of these lands,” the native said.

“Alright.” Alfonse nodded. “I’m in.”

Ernie slid a pile of counters in front of each of them and then dealt the first hand. The minute they placed their bets, Lizzie felt the power binding them to the game.

That was magic. It used you as much as you used it.

Within half an hour, Laughing Wolf’s stack of chips was almost gone. Lizzie wasn’t surprised. Alfonse had played in the most powerful cabals New York and Washington had to offer. It was all she could do to counter the card tracking spells and distraction cantrips he was using against her. Laughing Wolf never stood a chance.

“All in.” Laughing Wolf slid his remaining chips into the pot.

They flipped their cards over. Alfonse hadn’t been bluffing about his strength on this hand.

With a sigh, Laughing Wolf got up and went to stand by the bar, taking his brightly coloured coup stick with him.

The next hand went Lizzie’s way. Then two went heavily against her. She was down to a handful of chips. That meant less room to take risks, less chance to scrape back a win.

She gritted her teeth, trying not to let her frustration show. She’d thought she was onto a good thing. Instead, she risked having that snake Alfonse paw at her every night.

“You’ve been practising,” she said, trying to get him to open up a little.

“That and business are all I’ve got out here.” He ran his gaze up and down her body. “Until now, anyway.”

She won a couple of small pots, but not enough to balance the stakes. Then she let him win one so that she could run a spell through the winnings and try to expose his mood. But he sensed the magic and countered it by tipping Ernie with the critical chip.

Next, Alfonse hesitated over a big bet. She thought she had a winner and kept pushing the bets higher, only for him to reveal a full house, Kings over Queens, and take it all away.

Lizzie’s spirits sank. She was down to her last few chips.

“Why are you doing this?” Alfonse asked as Ernie slowly dealt the cards.

“I didn’t want anyone else to feel trapped,” Lizzie said. “Like I did back when we were engaged.”

Anger flashed across his face, the first real emotion he’d shown all game. Then he picked up his cards.

He tapped his finger and thumb together. Just a little gesture, but one she recognised.

The facade had cracked. He had a bad hand. But she didn’t have enough chips to make the most of it. He could just bet small, let her win, and wait to beat her later.


“All in,” Lizzie said. “And I’ll offer you something else too.”

“You’re going to marry me twice?” Alfonse asked with a raised eyebrow.

“My power with the cards,” Lizzie replied. “I’ll bet that against everything in front of you.”

“High stakes,” Alfonse said. He looked at his cards, then back at her. “Alright. I’m all in.”

As he pushed his pile of chips into the middle of the table, she felt the power flow out of her and into that heap. The game had heard her bet. It had bound her.

Everyone in the room held their breath.

Lizzie revealed her hand. A pair of Jacks. Together with the one on the table and the pair of threes beside it, that made a full house.

She smiled. Then a doubt gripped her. Why had Alfonse agreed if his hand really was bad?

Solemnly, he revealed his own cards.

A pair of threes. That made four of a kind.

Lizzie felt like the breath had been ripped out of her. Under pressure, she had missed the most obvious thing in the world. She stared in horror at Alfonse’s winning hand.

He tapped his finger and thumb together.

“Thought I’d forgotten how well you know my tells?” he asked, grinning.

He swept his winnings over to him. Lizzie could sense the magic of the game, could see the glow of power swelling around him.

Alfonse pulled a ring from his pocket and flung it across the table.

“Congratulations,” he said. “You’re going to be Mrs King.”

Lizzie stared at that tiny, gleaming prison. Then she picked it up and slipped it onto her finger.

What else could she do? She’d played and she’d lost.

“I need some air.” She stumbled to her feet, trying to control a sob as she stumbled out into the street.

* * *


This is part of me experimenting with serial flash fiction. You can read the preceding stories here:

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Skin in the Game – a science fiction flash story

Picture by shoobydooby via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by shoobydooby via Flickr Creative Commons

The dermatology conference always bored Helen senseless. She was so far ahead of her field she never learnt anything she couldn’t work out for herself. But the late night poker games, gambling unusual skin samples from their collections, those made it all worthwhile.

“Is that what I think it is?” she asked.

It was getting late, and there were only three of them left in the sweaty-smelling hotel room – her, an Australian named Dawkins and a guy from the Martian colonies named Gomolka. The stakes had risen. No-one was betting on misguided tatoos, old body mods or amusingly shaped moles any more.

“Cancer,” Dawkins said. “Malignant melanoma. One of the few anyone thought to preserve before they finished curing it.”

“It’s amazing.” Helen had never wanted anything so much in her life. It was like a piece of the past calling out to her, the deep ancestor of so much of her work. She reached out to touch the plastic slide holding the sample, but Dawkins batted her hand away.

“Uh-uh,” he said. “It’s still mine.”

He nodded to the dealer, who laid out the three public cards of the flop.

Battling to keep a straight face, Helen stared from the pair of cards in her hand to those on the table. Three, four and six of clubs there, and she had the king. It looked promising for a flush.

They added more skin samples to the pile of bets. The dealer set aside a burn card and flipped the turn. King of diamonds. Not a fifth club, but a match for Helen’s king. Not great, but not terrible.

These were the best moments – when the game sat on a knife edge.

She glanced at Dawkins. His little finger tended to twitch when he was bluffing, but there was no sign of that as he added to his stake with a green stained scalp sample. Gomolka set aside his cards with a sigh.

“Fold,” he said. “Time to sleep.”

He got up, leaving the two of them at the table.

“You still in?” Dawkins asked, pointing at the pile of bets in the centre of the table. “Or are these all mine?”

Helen hesitated. A pair wasn’t much to go on, but that cancer kept drawing her eye. She’d always wanted one for her collection, and they cost more than the office she worked in. When else would she get a chance like this?

Dawkins’ finger shifted.

“I’m in.” Helen reached into her sample case and found nothing there. “Can I offer an IOU?”

Dawkins laughed. “For this? No way. Not unless it’s a really big IOU.”

Her fingers closed around a plastic document, the only other thing precious enough that she’d kept it in the case. The deed for her new premises. Most of her wealth invested in an object as thin as skin.

She couldn’t give up on a game this good.

“This big enough?” Heart hammering, she tossed the deed on the pile.

“It’ll do,” Dawkins said.

The dealer revealed the river, the last card of the round. Helen’s heart pounded so hard that for a moment she thought Dawkins would see it beating in her chest.

Four of diamonds. That left her with two pairs, but what did it mean to Dawkins?

His finger didn’t move. A tiny hint of a smile caught the corner of his mouth.

There was only one thing for it. The other priceless piece of skin she had with her. A modification on her arm, and beneath it a hidden card she kept for emergencies. The king of hearts. She’d practised enough that she could switch it in with a little sleight of hand, and then she’d have a full house. With her business at stake, not to mention that priceless cancer, it had to be worth it.

She tensed a muscle and felt the loosened skin start to peel back.

Then a thought stopped her. The thrill of these games was the only thing that made the conferences worthwhile. If she sullied that, what was she left with? And what would she think of every time she looked at the cancer on her wall?

Unclenching, she let the fold of skin close.

“Let’s see what you’ve got,” she said, and laid her cards on the table.

* * *


Thanks to two of my readers for inspiring this story. Jo asked for a story in which cancer has largely been cured, which made a nice change from my often gloomy sci-fi. Marios suggested ‘Skin in the Game’ as a good title for a story. I hope you both enjoyed it.

My latest e-book, a short historical story called ‘Honour Among Thieves’, is out now. A story of adventure and divided loyalties in medieval England, it’s available for free from Amazon or Smashwords. Please go grab a copy and enjoy some more of my fiction.

If you have an idea for a future flash story, let me know in the comments and I’ll try to fit it in. And if you’d like to read more like this then you can get a free e-book, as well as flash stories straight to your inbox every Friday, by signing up for my mailing list.