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"Okay, the game works like this. I always win, you always die."

Damien Larbright frowned at the man. He could not deny that Allen Peterson was a master poker player, but today he seemed a little off his rocker. "Look old man." He rumbled, patience wearing thin. "I'm not going to play if you get all psycho on me." Allen laughed. "You think I'm kidding, don't you?" You'd better go check up on that cute little girlfriend of yours if you think I ain't serious..." Laura's screams violently erupted into existence.

Larbright charged down the claustrophobically narrow halls of panic, heart hammering like a trapped bird. He was almost there. After correcting from a wrong turn again, the edges of hopelessness began to claw at his reserve. He did not know the way and could only follow the sound of Laura's pained screams. He threw open the door to his hotel room, to see Laura huddled in the corner, screaming. Her body was riddled with lacerations.

She looked up at him with wide and pleading eyes, filled with a desperation that he could never have imagined. 'Damien, please...' She begged with an outstretched arm, which abruptly fell limply to the floor next to her crumpled form. 'Noooo!' he howled into the night.

"I told you I was serious." Allen appeared at the door, holding a rusty, old pair of scissors. The blades were dripping blood. "When you lose, you pay. I always win, you always die."

Damien was baffled at how the man could be in two places at once. That wasn't possible! "What do you want?" He demanded.

"That which only held value while her heart beat. Your soul."


Enraged, Damien lunged at his tormentor -only to find his hands close on thin air.

In desperation he turned to Laura's body and for the third time in less than a minute his mind was shunted with disbelief. She was gone.

It was too much and Damien sank to his knees in disbelief, staring at the spot where his latest love had seemingly met her end but there wasn't a drop of blood to be seen.

For what seemed an eternity his mind whirled, until at last his skills as a master poker player kicked in.

"Okay," he muttered to himself. "This is it then, is it? The ultimate poker game. The game of life and death, where every bid is a feint and every stake could be fatal."

Damien pulled himself up to his full six fet and strode back down the corridor to the table.

Peterson was waiting as if nothing had ever happened.


"Well, I thought you were not coming back" Peterson said.

Damien stopped cold where he stood.


"I thought you were not coming back" Peterson replied. "I've seen a lot of freaks, people who make weird things while playing, you know, but you're the first one to just run away in the middle of a game."

Damien just stare blank at the old man.

"Do you feel all right?" Peteron asked, shuffling the cards

"I just need to sit down."

"Do we go on with the game? I don't like leaving things unfinished."

The odds of a royal flush were simply astronomical.

His stomach sinking with fear, Damien looked from his hand to Peterson's face. Peterson looked mildly concerned but there was a hint up a smile at the corner of his mouth.

"Are you going to lay down?" he asked.

"What, lay down and die? Or throw down my hand. This is crazy Peterson, where the hell are we?"

Peterson's face lit up with a smile which traveled to his eyes. His eyes remained fixed, motionless. Like a dead fish. A stinking shark, thought Damien.


"Let's talk stakes, Bucko."

_Bucko_? How could he know that?

Echoes of Damien's father resounded through the halls of memory. He had taught him how to play Poker when he was five.

Damien leveled a mutinous glare on Peterson. Laura. He was sure he had seen her. Hadn't he? He would get her back.

"First, what's the game? Draw, stud, straight? I need to know before we decide an ante." His eyes were mean, but if he was playing by this sicko's rules, he'd do it the way Old Tennessee taught him.

"Texas Holdem." Damien looked into Peterson and didn't like what he saw. "You know how to play that old man?"

"I can play them all, Bucko. I can play them all." Peterson snuck a quick, predatory grin.

The cards whispered as Peterson shuffled them with an uncanny ease that would have made a magician envious. Damien wondered what other tricks those long fingered hands might know. His thoughts returned to the look of dread in Laura's eyes. The cards began to fall.

Damien picked up his cards and looked down at his hand. He didn't like what he saw. A two of hearts and a three of spades. The three community cards were all Queens, and Damien just knew Peterson was holding the other. So what to do? He could flip the table and make a run for it. But where would that leave Laura? He wasn't even sure if Laura was really there in the hotel. The last time he had seen her was two nights ago, before he left for this trip. He and Peterson had always met once a year to catch up and play some friendly poker, but this 'thing' sitting across from him wasn't his old friend. "How in the hell can a play with someone who can read my mind?" Damien asked to stall for time. "Not my problem, Bucko," Peterson sat back in his chair and grinned.

Allen Peterson's eyes were grey, they glowed on his hallow dark face like two moons. A cigar poked from his mouth. The cherry scented smoke filled the room and made Damien's eyes water. A tear plopped onto the table; breaking the silence. Allen looked up from his cards and chuckled.

"Crying already Damien?" Petersons said. "Pouting like a little bitch."

Damien swallowed, a few more tears squeezed out of his eyes. Peterson blew a smoke ring; it floated across the room and twisted into wispy vapers, dissappearing forever.

"Thinking of Laura, eh?" Peterson said.

"Screw you," Demian said tapping the table. "Check."

"She squealed when I killed her. I cut off her bony fingers one by one. Her screams were actually soothing. I wish the scissors were sharper but, I guess that just adds to the thrill." Peterson chuckled again.

Peterson set his cigar down in the crystal ashtray next to his arm. He turned the Fourth Street over. Demian looked down at the card. It should have been a face card, but instead of the colorful picture of a Jack or Queen it held a grainy photograph of a severed finger.

Demian blinked the tears back.

"Oh my," Peterson mocked as he lifted the cigar from the ashtray. "I hope the next card isn't a heart."

Demian forced himself to look Peterson in the eyes. Between clinched teeth his said, "I'm going to kill you."

"I don't think that's going to happen," Peterson flipped the last card over.

Demian looked down at it as his eyes grew wide in terror.

It was a face card. A Queen.

The stoic face of the Queen melted into itself, swirling to become something else entirely. The hearts at the corners began to beat, faster, ever faster, until they were caught in a flux. Blood roared from the hearts now, and spurted onto the table...

The face of the Queen leered up at him. Her eyes were hollow, like a demonaical panda... The full lips contorted and puckered. He knew those lips. He'd kissed them coutless times. They belonged to Laura.

Peterson's stenciled fingers, still scarlet with Laura's hardening blood, swept the cards into a neat pile. Laura vanished, and Demian felt his past and his future crumbling into some dark chasm.

He knew only rage, colorless and hungry - a rage tamed only by the regret that handcuffed his will to black misery, sutured his self-hatred to despair.

"Would you care to see a card trick?" Peterson asked.

"Does it involve making a volunteer disappear? because I nominate you."

Peterson grinned, shuffling the cards with dexterous ease. Flakes of hardened blood scraped off. "You were always a tad nervy, Demian, but then we all have our flaws. What I can't understand is why you treat your old pal with such disdain. Especially after he saved your life."

Demian dove across the table and had Peterson's neck in a white-knuckled grip. The cards cascaded into the air and showered down on them.

"Don't even try it," Demian snarled.

"It's true, Demian," Peterson wheezed. His flesh was paling to a bruised blue. "The Laura you thought you knew, thought you loved, was a miserable, psychotic wretch - an escapee from the nut house who played you for your cash, and then was going to stage your suicide so she could get rich."

Demian squeezed harder.

"Don't say another word," he said.

Peterson's eyes bugged out and threatened to pop from their sockets, but Demian saw a glimmer of earnestness in them.

"It's true," he wheezed. "Please...stop Demian. I swear to you it's true. If you don't believe me, just check what she slipped into your pocket. It will explain it all."

Demian released Peterson, who crumpled on the decaying hardwood floor and coughed up phlegm and blood.

"My bet is that you're a miserable lying whore," Demian spat.

But as he felt his jeans pocket, he realized that there was something in there. Something weighty and...Demian reached deep into his pocket.

And screamed.

Still screaming Demian pulled the object out of his pocket. Without looking he knew what it was. The shape and size left no room for doubt. His mind replayed the reporter's words from the morning news.

"I repeat the state police have issued an Amber alert for seven year old Ashley Frye. She was last seen wearing red shorts and a white cotton top. On the middle finger of her left hand she may have been wearing her Mother's diamond engagement ring."

His hands trembled as he dropped the blood covered appendage on the table. A rubber band held a folded peice of paper that hid the ring that Demian knew was there.

Damien stared at the severed child finger, his heart racing painfully. His mind churned. He juggled the memories back and forth, but none of it made sense. He had to... had to... get rid of the... I am covered in blood! With a croak he wiped his hands on his shirt, before deciding it was a lost cause, and instead ripped off his shirt, tangled himself up and toppled off the table.

With a shout he ripped the shirt all the way off, hurting his left ear in the process. He scrabbled to a sitting position. His lungs burned, his heart throbbed so hard he could not stand it.

A soft chuckle brought him back, and his eyes fell on the grinning apparition of his friend Allen Peterson.

"Damien, I swear, you are such a push-over. I hate to interrupt your private show, but we do have a poker game to finish."

Damien took a breath, and wobbled to his feet. There was no finger on the table. He looked at his hands and clothes. There was no blood.

"You did that."

"What did I do this time?"

"The finger. You showed me the finger.. it's a trick."

"Which finger? This one?"

"Very funny. You hypnotized me. Why are you doing this? What do you want?"

"Like I said, I always win, you always die. That's all you need to remember."

Peterson gestured at Damien's overturned chair.

Damien righted the chair, and pulled his fingers through his hair. He was drenched in sweat.

"I need a minute."

"You don't have a minute."

"Just shut the hell up, Peterson... or whoever the hell you are. Who are you anyway?"

"Betty, when you call me, you can call me Al!"

Peterson burst out in laughter so suddenly and violently that Damien flinched and backed up.

"Oh, I kill myself... Name? My name is Allen, you should know that by now, old friend."

"You're not Allen."

"Aren't I? How do you know?"

"I know Allen, and you're not him."

"Oh, I beg your pardon, Betty. Far be it from me to question such an astute observation by such a brilliant mind. If I am not Allen, then who am I?"

"That's what I want to know too. Now you will excuse me a minute."

Damien turned towards the exit.

"Where you going, buddy?"

The door was gone.

"Get back in your chair. We're going to finish this. I was just about to win, you know. I've got four queens!"

Peterson started to laugh uncontrollably again. Damien turned around. The laughter swelled, grew deeper, permeated the air around him. He smelled something burning.

"High card wins, Damien, and you have deuce, three! I win by default. Lets just get to the next hand, shall we?"

Without warning the man Damien had known as Allen Peterson shot the cards up into the air like a child playing 52 card pick up. At the appex of their arc the cards paused before scattering like a murder of frightened crows. In an instant the world was filled like a ticker-tape parade. Each card was unique and filled with a fresh abomination. The first card Damien saw showed spiders the size of dogs dragging new borns from their mother's arms. The next a blood drenched man stood over the sprawled body of a woman that might have been Laura. Before he could see a third through his tear filled eyes Damien launched himself toward the dealer with a scream.

"Sir, sit down and breathe a moment won't you?" The pretty waitress grabbed Damien's arm and guided him into the chair.

Damien stared at her wild eyed, disbelieving. Her black hair piled high on her head. A few stands had freed themselves and hovered above her bright blue eyes.

"Please," she handed him his silk grey shirt." put your shirt back on, your scaring the other customers."

Damien swallowed hard, his adam's apple rising high to his jaw then settling back down. Was she real? Or part of the Peterson's scheme? He climbed into his shirt.


She looked at him sympathetically, eyebrows raised.

He nodded his head towards Peterson.The cards had disappeared. "Do you smell smoke?"

She brought her left arm around from her back revealing a cigrette. "This?" She blew the smoke into the air. She shrugged her shoulders. "I'm on break."

"You look like hell. Have a bad night?" she asked. She walked over to where Peterson sat. She sat on his lap and took along drawl of her cigrette.

Peterson poked his head around the waitress' shoulders and smiled.

Damien nodded at the waitress not sure what to say.

"This chair is SO uncomfortable." She wiggled around and crossed her legs. Peterson grabbed her thighs and squeezed.

"Maybe you shouldn't sit there!" I said. I reached over,took her hand, and yanked her up.

"Woah, Buddy! Just back off, kay?" She took her arm back and smoothed her black skirt.

I lifted my arms and backed off.

She gave me a funny look as she poked her stub into the ashtray. "Yeah, um, just leave your shirt on and you'll be fine." She turned and left. Leaving me alone, with a smirking Peterson.


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