Despair fell heavy on Dechs when he realized the situation he was in. He already had over two hundred thousand tied up in the pot, most of it was trying to scare his opponent out of the hand at the turn. There was no need to look at his cards, but he did anyway, reminding himself he should have just folded the suited eight-ten. It was a decent hand, but something about this hand had always brought the worst kind of luck. Why should today have been different? Yes, he had the high straight on the table, but the river was a third heart and that bastard across the table had the flush. Maybe.
The dealer tonight was less attractive than the one he remembered seeing last week; the impatient scowl she tried to hide was not doing her any favors. Ten people had taken seats in the private room nearly three hours ago; another five minutes would not make a difference. Of the eight players who had already run out of luck, Dechs had finished off three himself, along with four glasses of a delicious Laphroaig quarter cask the casino was happy to provide. Unfortunately, all three conquests were the current short stack, failing to secure a chip lead against his final opponent. That opponent sat motionless, save for the flipping of a chip over and again between his spindly blotched fingers. Every so often, the chip would make a distinct clink as it struck past the gold Masonic ring, a sound which somehow broke its owner's composure. Each noise let confidence leak out as the slightest twitch of a smile, barely noticeable within all the wrinkles of his face. That meant the flush for sure. Damn it, there was no easy way out of this.
"All in." Dechs pushed his chips forward and spoke devoid of emotion.
The old man dropped his chip and fiddled with his gold cuff link for a moment before prodding, "Would be strange for you, of all people, to be saved by the ace of hearts."
Dechs was a marble statue. His opponent was second guessing, which was the best he could expect. They both knew the math of the table. The old man could play it safe and fold now; Dechs would take the lead but the gap would not be insurmountable. If he called, though, it would mean the end of the night for someone.
"You really don't give anything away, do you?" The man scratched at his thick white eyebrow and squinted while he studied Dechs for any reaction, but not even a hint of satisfaction at the compliment was visible. Giving up that pursuit, he simply pushed his chips forward. The haphazard motion caused a few tall stacks to tumble and one chip rolled all the way to Dechs' side of the table. "I won't bother counting. We're done here either way."
Dechs flipped his eight-ten of spades that were not helping and his opponent sighed relief; it was all he needed to see. Taking up his cane and rising from his seat, he commended, "Well played, Senator."
"Ah, Ace, before you go," the senator neglected his winnings for the moment as he hurried to his feet, "Your bill is seeing some strong resistance from the eastern states, particularly New York. I hear things are going much better for you in the House, but that's because they stapled a tax to it."
"New York? That's McGavin, then. What's her argument?" Dechs placed a fedora on his head with a motion that also allowed him to adjust his sunglasses.
"She's appealing to the working class, saying the mutants would steal jobs. If you can sway her, no less than eight votes will follow."
"Thanks. I'll invite her to the party this weekend, too."
"I'm looking forward to it. It's always worth the trip here for your parties." The Senator gushed excitement; hiding his emotions for the long game had taken its toll.
"Take care of yourself on the way home," as Dechs left the senator in the private room, he realized there was no need to wish him well. Standing just outside were two government agents who had come to escort the senator. They were likely aptitude types; heightened awareness and muscle control are fantastic resume bullets for a hired gunman. In exchange for their service to the country, which most often meant hunting down other mutants, they were afforded the freedom of living outside Pandora's Playground. In fact, it was these services that Dechs used to justify the bill he was pushing through Congress. If the government could hire mutants without detriment to society, even those with abilities that make them more lethal, it was reasonable that the private sector could do the same.
"Excuse me, Mr. Kaison?" A reserved male voice called to Dechs from the bar he had just passed. "Do you have a moment to discuss some business?"
"Business is done by appointment." Dechs replied without so much as a backward glance. "You can call my office to schedule."
"And if I said this was about Deathgrind and a missing psychic, would anyone else know to what I was referring?" The voice maintained calm and even pacing, with a polite inflection at its end. The words halted Dechs in his tracks.
"I was wondering when this would happen," Dechs replied with his back still to the bar, turning only his head to see who had hailed him. The first thing he noticed was a relaxed posture, followed by a well-fitting suit that had the look of Armani. With no expectation of hostility, Dechs continued his analysis while he approached. There was an odd, almost deliberate, white streak slicked back along with otherwise black, greasy hair. The man held a gin and tonic with his right hand, proudly displaying a class ring; as Dechs took the stool next to him, he recognized the crest of Columbia Law School. "Truth be told, I was expecting less class and more big scary men."
"Oh, there's no call for brutal tactics with respectable humans like ourselves. My client feels that a civil conversation is all it will take to resolve matters." The distinction of human and even a feeling of superiority were not uncommon in the wake of Pandora. There was a certain discrimination against mutants that often manifested as a form of us versus them mentality. The man set down his glass, and with an outstretched hand, offered, "Anthony Zaharis. What are you drinking?"
Dechs took the handshake out of courtesy and found it firm but yielding. No sooner had the handshake ended than a glass of crushed ice and amber liquid appeared for Dechs, brought by a supple hand and playful smile. The bartender's vivid green nails matched her jade earrings, just barely hidden by shoulder length brown hair. As the young woman leaned forward to push the glass, her jade necklace dangled to the bar, but it could hardly steal attention from the low neckline of her oriental dress. Dechs nodded, and with half a smile, he said, "Thank you, Mei. I'm on his tab tonight."
Mei turned to Anthony long enough to raise her eyebrows at him before strutting away. Anthony sipped at his drink as his eyes followed her slender waist and swaying hips. While he was distracted, Dechs quickly surveyed the nearby slot machines for any patrons that might be paying more attention to him than their games. Satisfied for now, he commented, "She's fine, and an empath type, too. Knows exactly what you want."
Anthony tensed briefly and suppressed a look of intense disgust, as if Mei had suddenly become hideous. Disregarding the comment, he asked, "Is this is agreeable neutral territory to you, or would you prefer somewhere less public?"
"I've nothing to hide," Dechs grinned and prodded, "Would you prefer somewhere less mutant?"
Anthony disguised his scoff as an amiable laugh, complete with artificial smile, then pressed on, "Pleasantries out of the way, my client, who will remain anonymous, would like to formally apologize for allowing matters to spill into your place of business. The operatives we employ are instructed to minimize collateral involvement; however, some discretion must be given to the operatives. The decision to invade your hospital was solely that of the operative. That said, his lapse of judgement is nonetheless our responsibility. We are willing to pay for any expense incurred as a result of the incident."
"If this whole thing ends with you asking for the operative back, let me save you the trouble and tell you he's out of my hands." Guarded by his sunglasses, Dechs' eyes were free to dart between Anthony and two suspicious patrons. One was clearly armed and both made frequent glances towards the bar, even when Mei was not visible.
"Unfortunate, but not unexpected. Forgive my callousness, but there is a degree of acceptable losses with our operatives."
"Then we're even, but that's not what you came here for." Dechs indulged his glass as Mei made another round. He noticed that Anthony's keen interest in her had all but disappeared.
"Do you read all your poker opponents this well?" Anthony's tone was only slightly sarcastic.
"I read that your loathing toward mutants is stronger than your yellow fever. I read that, for all your politeness, you think I'm a threat. And I read that, despite how revolting you find mutants, you have no trouble hiring them to watch your back." With the last of his words, Dechs angled his head to face the casino floor. Careful with his wording, he finished, "So yes, I do read all my opponents this well."
Anthony cleared his throat, "You'll have to excuse them. I'm simply cautious when it comes to meeting new people, especially those who operate primarily in Pandora's Playground. Even more so with someone so successful at it. Surely no one has a better understanding of the Pandora genetic markers. If anyone is going to figure out exactly how Pandora's Flare actually caused all of this, it will be you. Your research efforts among the mutants have even resulted in treatments and cures to human diseases."
"Cut the shit, lose the thugs, and get to the point."
Anthony brought both hands up to his neck and tugged forward on his collar. At this signal, three patrons cashed out of their machines and departed, two of which were the ones Dechs had already noted. "Satisfied?"
"Huh." Dechs pursed his bottom lip and nodded, clearly impressed, "The one at blazing sevens is worth his paycheck. The other two? Not so much."
"I appreciate your critique." The polite, professional facade persisted. "My client's interest in Mr. Deathgrind is unchanged, and he would like to come to some agreement about your involvement in the matter. Now, we do not anticipate that you would aid us in apprehending him, nor is it needed. My client merely asks you to walk away from this. Turn a blind eye, as it were."
Dechs replied by draining his glass and setting it near the inside of the bar. Seeing this, Mei took hold of a blended scotch and Drambuie to bring over.
"This could be just the beginning of a profitable relationship. My client has great interest in your research, particularly your theories on mutation prediction and early detection. We have our own resources to provide in return. Our research is considerably broader than yours. Perhaps our metallurgy insights would pique your interest." Anthony did more than offer a trade. His knowledge of Dechs' personal, private ventures was a display of power and reach.
"Tell me. What is your interest in Deathgrind?" Dechs tired of this dance; it was time someone made a move. He was quick to reach for his refill while Mei slid it towards him. Their fingers mingled a moment; her eyes narrowed and glared at Anthony before she stormed off.
Anthony made no indication that he noticed the exchange, "What is yours? He's nothing more than a simple criminal of limited means."
"There are no criminals in the Playground. You take what you want, guard what you have, and survive. That law has served quite well since the rest of the world abandoned us."
"Us, Mr. Kaison?" Surprise rang in Anthony's voice, along with just a hint of disdain, although both were absent when he continued, "You stand to gain much from us and would lose nothing of value. All you have to do is not get involved."
"We're past that. I was involved as soon as I met the first goon your boss sent. Pursue Deathgrind at risk." Already, Dechs could see the broad shoulders of a casino security officer making his way through the aisles of machines. Mei had understood him perfectly.
"This is your last chance before you force my hand." The facade broke as Anthony's face flushed, "We will ruin you and your company over this. You are not too big to topple."
"I bet and you raise. That's a bold play before the flop. You can't expect me to call." Dechs remained cool and cracked a confident smirk.
"I expect you to be smart and fold." Built up frustration escaped, blinding Anthony to the large man now standing behind him.
"I'm all in." Dechs had more to say, but the security guard had already taken Anthony by the collar and lifted him up off the stool. Dechs raised his index finger so that the guard paused; Dechs simultaneously savored the smell of his drink and the sound of Anthony choking on his own collar. He polished off his glass, then stood up and delivered his own threat, "Tell your boss, if he wants to play at my table, it's going to cost him."
Dechs performed a dismissive wave and the guard proceeded to drag Anthony off the premises. He wondered what Anthony might be thinking or saying were he not gasping for air. It was a shame, he thought, that such a nice suit was about to be ruined.
Dechs looked down into his empty glass for a moment and reflected on his entire evening. Losing the tournament may have been the roundabout way to bribe, but it was cheaper than paying straight cash. The buy in was only a hundred grand, but ended with eight times that funneled to the senator after the casino took its cut. Dechs had earned two more enemies, which met quota for the week. Both warranted further investigation, but the upcoming political battle with McGavin concerned him more than the vague threats of a faceless, nameless organization.
Glancing back up from the glass, Dechs figured he ought to call it a night. As he turned the glass upside down and placed it on the inside of the bar, by chance he saw one empty seat at a Hold 'Em table. The night was not over yet and he still felt lucky.