Regan watched as the girl across from her dealt out the cards, her motions smooth and practiced. She carefully picked up her hand and eased them into a fan in front of her. She had not even processed what they were when the dealer interpreted her thoughts.
"The betting will be opened by Ms. Fairchild. There is no maximum at this table.”
She reviewed her cards and nodded, trying to focus on what she had and what she could make: three of clubs, five of heart, queen of spades, ace of spades, and seven of diamonds. It was a fairly lucky hand. The queen guaranteed her at least a pair, and the ace made it a high pair. She took up some of her chips.
“One hundred dollars.”
To her left, Serenity said nothing but reached out and let a small stack of the clay discs drop onto the table. All eyes shifted to Roger who was still eyeing his cards. “You know,” he drawled. “I just think these are worth a bit more than a C-note.” He counted out some chips. “I’ll raise the bet fifty.”
“The bet is one hundred fifty dollars,” Ms. Harper said with a smile, glancing at Roger before turning her gaze to Paul. Regan watched him studying his cards. Finally he pushed out his wager and sat back in his chair without a word. Either he barely had a hand, or he was a very good actor. He still smelled of frustration and annoyance. The dealer gestured towards Regan and repeated the wager. Regan nodded and added the chips needed to bring her wager up to match Roger’s. Serenity silently matched the bet and all four of them were in. Regan glanced at her cards again as Ms. Harper neatened the stacks and picked up the deck..
Roger took two cards on the draw. Surprisingly, Paul only took one. Regan looked at her hand a final time and slipped out three cards, leaving the ace and the queen. Serenity took three cards as well. The draw was dealt and Regan carefully slid the cards from the table. Ace of clubs, four of clubs and seven of clubs. She swore under her breath. If she’d held the seven she would have a full house and a fairly good chance of winning this pot. Still, a three of a kind was a competitive hand, even with some cards wild.
“Two hundred,” she opened trying to sound confident.
Serenity quietly folded, shaking her head. “I am so glad I ate before coming. I am assuredly going home hungry.” Ms. Harper’s cheeks paled a little as she turned to Roger. He shrugged and dropped his chips on the table with a simple, “Call.”
Paul shook his head. “Okay, let’s see. The bet is two hundred.” He place the required chips out in front of him. “So I’m going to add fifty to that.”
“The bet is two hundred fifty,” Ms. Harper repeated, her hand extended a little towards Regan.
Regan forced a smile. “Three hundred.”
Roger said nothing as he added more chips to his stack. He turned and pointedly regarded Paul. “This is your doing, you know.” He nodded towards Regan. “She’s trying to prove something, trying to put you in your place.”
“Well then,” Paul said, not looking up from his cards. “She’ll have to pay for the privilege.” He pushed two stacks out onto the table. “I believe this raises the bet to five hundred.” Grinning he kept his eyes on the dealer while he spoke. “I do hope that doesn’t force anyone to have to offer up more than they are willing to wager.”
Regan looked at her stack of chips. That bet would force her all-in, with a three of a kind. She looked at her cards again. He would need at least a straight to beat her. She had every other three of a kind topped. She shrugged and put her cards down. She could see Paul’s grin out of the corner of her eye.
“Too rich? I’m so very sorry.”
Regan did not say anything as she reached behind her neck and released the clasp holding her silver necklace and its diamond pendant in place. She carefully held it out over the table. Slowly she lowered it to the felt, letting the chain coil around the precious stone. “I will raise. I think that a quarter karat diamond cut solitaire, with silver chain, will raise the overall bet to seven hundred.”
Roger let out whoop. “Now that’s a girl who knows she wants to see your cards, boy.” He slapped Paul’s shoulder. “And from it looks like she just bought the pot out from under you. Unless you’ve got some chips in your pant cuff or something.” He shook his head and added more to the pile of chips in front of himself with another chuckle. “I’m calling, by the by.”
“Mr. Roise calls. The bet is seven hundred dollars to Mr. Wright.” Ms. Harper reached out to neaten up the stacks of chips she could easily reach.
Paul scowled, his elbows on the table, and his hands holding the sides of his head as he stared at the table. His eyes darted from the stacks of money to the cards laid on the table. He began to nervously count his chips, muttering. “She’s not buying the pot out from under me.”
“You know,” Regan started, trying to sound casual. “I collect Cross pens. Having one to remember tonight would probably be worth, at least, four hundred dollars to me.”
“How did you-” Paul started, clearly surprised. “I don’t care. Fine.” The pen was slammed onto the table. Regan was taken by how quickly he parted with it, but did not comment.
“All players have called,” Ms. Harper said politely. “The last raise was made by Ms. Fairchild.” She made a small gesture and waited.
“Three of a kind.” Regan laid her cards out and looked up. Roger’s face remained calm, though he did arch his eyebrows, impressed. She had this. She glanced towards Paul. His smile was broad and wide.
“Flush.” He laid out his cards: three of diamonds, eight of diamonds, ten of diamonds, jack of diamonds and the queen of hearts. He jabbed a finger at the jack. “You lost a diamond to diamonds. I think, maybe, that’s in the wikipedia article on ‘irony’, isn’t it?”
“What’s it say next to ‘ass’?” Roger was still holding his cards, eyeing them as he ran his thumb along their edges.
Paul was starting to gather up chips. “It can have my picture for all I care.” He shot a nasty look at Regan. “I told you I’d win it back.”
“Well now, at least let me put down this little two pair, would you, boy?” Roger reached out to lay out his cards: Two fives, heart and spade, and two queens, clubs and diamonds. “Oh, silly me, let me amend that. Four of a kind.”
Paul froze. “You have got to be fu-” He was cut off as Roger’s backhand caught him clearly in the throat, sending him up and out of his chair. Casually, Roger smoothed his vest and then began to gather his winnings. The dealer barely flinched at the outburst, and Serenity remained unmoving. Paul, on the other hand, looked surprised enough for all of them as he lay on the floor, sprawled like a rag doll. He coughed and tried to talk, but found it suddenly very difficult.
“I told you to keep a civil tongue,” Roger said, dropping the clay discs into even stacks of eight each.
Serenity smiled faintly. “Speaking of such things,” she said in a smooth voice. “I believe that Ms. Fairchild is now out, having only played two hands.” She pointed at the necklace and the pen. “Rather than cash I would like to collect my winnings from that wager in material goods.”
“Fine by me,” Roger said, moving the stacks directly in front of himself.
Serenity lifted the necklace by the chain, letting the diamond twist in the light above the table. “A lovely stone and one I am quite pleased to have acquired.” She smiled at Regan. “The true value is always in the story of how such things are obtained.” Carefully she lowered it to the table, turning the chain so as to create a neat spiral around the pendant. She picked up the pen and offered it to Regan. “This is my thanks for tonight’s entertainment. Seeing that blood sack be thrown from the table is, truly, invaluable.”
“I warned him,” Roger muttered, sliding his and Paul’s cards back towards Ms. Harper. “I suppose it’s just you and me now.”
Serenity nodded and reached out to move the dealer’s chip to her own place at the table. “The game shall be high card, one thousand dollar ante.” She grinned wickedly. “Surely that is not too rich for your blood, Mr. Roise.”
Paul, meanwhile, had picked himself up from the the floor, still rubbing his neck. He righted his chair and tried to smooth his jacket. “I assure you that my invitation to this ga-”
“Get out.” Roger did not look at him as he spoke. His eyes were fixed on Serenity as he fingered a stack of chips. “You lost. You’re an ass. And you’re not welcome here again.”
“You don’t have the right,” Paul sputtered. “When my-” He stopped when Roger turned to glare at him.
“I don’t give an ounce of cowpie what your friends have to say. I’m starting to wonder if you even have the common sense God gave a fruit fly. Now get out before someone decides that Ms. Harper isn’t enough of a meal tonight.”
Regan looked up at Paul. He seemed frozen in place, his face paling noticeably. Finally he nodded and left, his stride brisk.
“I should go too,” Regan said getting up from the table, her fist closed around the pen. “It’s been a long night...” She pushed her chair in.
Serenity nodded at her. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Fairchild. Do give our regards to Mr. Windsor.”
Regan hesitated. “Who?”
Serenity turned away from her to look at Ms.Harper. The girl’s cheeks were starting to flush with excitement and Regan could smell the scent of fear overtaking her. It was hard not to wonder if this was a common experience for Ms. Harper, to be treated as a prize, as a delicacy to be won then savored. Regan assumed that she would be savored. Why would you eat anything so cute quickly?
Roger pushed his stack of money towards Serenity's. “Fine. High card.” Both were ignoring Regan now. She quietly left the room, trying not to think too much about Ms. Harper’s vibrant if fake,red hair, and that sweet smell of youth she had.
The restaurant was still fairly full; many customers had paired up at the bar and were speaking in low tones to each other. Regan watched for a few moments, working up the nerve to go outside and look for her benefactor. She tried to ignore the scents filling the air; strong smells of garlic, cloves, and other spices assaulted her senses, mingling with arousal, alcohol and excitement. She slipped the pen into her small hand bag and stepped out into the warm summer night.
Small groups of people walked up and down the sidewalk. It was late enough that they should be home, preparing for another day of work, but early enough that no one seemed to care. Parked across several of the parallel spots was a black stretch SUV. A man in a black suit jacket with matching pants and a blood-red muscle shirt stood next to one of the rear doors. He did not say anything to her as she approached. He was tall, easily six-and-a-half feet, and built like a linebacker. Was it his coffin she had been buried in? She could smell nothing from him, which suggested he was a vampire or a thrall.
“Is this J’s car?” She was not really sure how to ask any other way.
The guard said nothing. He simply reached out and opened the door, standing back from it and making room for Regan to climb in. She had never been in a limo of any kind, let alone an SUV. It was surprisingly spacious, almost like a small office on wheels rather than the back of a car. Polished wood paneling was set against fine leather seats. Soft yellow lights lined the top of the cab’s sides, reflecting their glow off of the polished ceiling. She slid into the rear seat and continued to look around the cab.
Seated on one of the couches along the right side of the chamber was a man. He watched her climb in and settle into the seat. His sandy blond hair was trimmed short and neat, framing a gentle face. His bright blue eyes danced in the light of the cab and his smile was easy and welcoming. “Welcome, Ms. Regan Fairchild of the Coins. Do make yourself comfortable.” He was athletic, the purple silk shirt he wore showing off his broad shoulders. “Can I offer you a refreshment?”
Regan hesitated. All she had had to eat or drink, successfully at any rate, had been blood. Was that the offering or was she going to have to choke down some kind of vinegar as a polite gesture?
Her host seemed to sense the reason for her hesitation. “I promise I have the finest vintages,” he said reassuringly. He lifted a bottle of dark crimson liquid. “This is actually from a wonderful Olympian, with a hearty aftertaste of his pure strength.” He placed the bottle back into the tray next to him, and took out another bottle. “This, on the other hand, is of a vibrant young artist that I personally harvested. So full of innocence, you can simply taste the pure genius of her creativity.”
Regan sat staring blankly, unsure how to respond. Was he describing the people to her like the were grapes plucked from the vine? Did blood really have flavor that varied enough to create different “vintages”? It did make sense on some levels, but most of those were levels Regan had been avoiding. She barely felt the SUV move as it pulled away from the curb, the minor jostling as it entered traffic bringing her back to the present.
“I’m good, really,” Regan said not taking her eyes of the tray of bottles next to her host. “I think I have your pen.”
The gentleman nodded. “Where are my manners? I am Jeremiah Windsor Book, Lord Regent of the Library of the Straits. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance finally, Ms. Fairchild.”
“Likewise,” Regan answered, very unsure what else to say. She shifted in her seat and then held up her handbag. “Do you want your pen?”
Jeremiah waved his hand dismissively. “It would be best that you hold it for the time being. I am afraid it would not be completely safe with me just yet.” He poured himself a glass from one of the bottles. Regan had already lost track of which was which. He took a sip, savored the taste and then smiled at her. “Tell me, Ms. Fairchild, do you believe in magic?”
“Well,” Regan started, stalling for time to wrap her head around the unexpected question. “I believe that there are...” She paused. She had stopped believing in magic when she was seven and her dad had conned her out of a week’s allowance with a bad card trick. “No,” she said, finding confidence in something, “No, I don’t.”
“And there too many of our kind who remain trapped in their mortal states of mind,” Jeremiah said, pausing to take another sip of blood. “Mortals cannot comprehend magic, so they rush to categorize, explain, hypothesize and test the world around them. They could not explain gravity so they raced each other to find a particle that causes it. What next? An explanation for that particle? And the next? At the end of it all, the sheer magic of the universe is lost on them.” He turned to look out one of the windows, and watch the street lights race past. “But when you have the time we have, Ms. Fairchild, you learn that there is value in forgetting explanations, and instead embracing things as they are. Rather than asking, ‘How can this be?’ you are best served to ask, ‘How can this be used?’ Where humans, and vampires, obsess in finding explanations, they fail to find applications.” He drained more of the glass and turned to her. “Are you absolutely sure you do not wish a drink? I do have some suburban housewife in the back, a nice simple, if bland, taste, perfect for the emerging palate.”
“No, really, I’m fine,” Regan hastily answered.
Jeremiah shrugged and refreshed his glass. “When you believe in magic, you believe anything is possible and you stop ignoring the things your mind cannot explain.” He looked out the back window of the vehicle. Regan could feel it picking up speed then swaying slightly as it slipped out onto one of the many highways through the area. “I am quite certain you have questions, just as I have more requests. Let us begin with your questions. What would you like to ask me?”
“Why are you helping me?” Regan knew how to manage a balance sheet. Everything came with an invoice. If she was being given to, she was surely going to be expected to give back.
“I considered your maker a dear friend,” Jeremiah said with little hesitation. “Her death touched my heart, and compelled me to make some small, humble gestures towards her progeny. I assume that our Lord Earl explained to you the circumstances of her death.”
Regan shook her head. “No, he actually never mentioned her, or really anything for that matter.”
“Typical,” Jeremiah said taking another sip. “We have a strict code, Ms. Fairchild. Each county is allowed a specific number of vampires residing within it, no more. Detroit has a limit of one hundred. When Kendra brought you into the fold, our population exceeded that which was permitted. Her death, shall we say, balanced the books.”
Regan shook her head. Her maker had been killed for creating her. Why not have Regan killed? Jeremiah watched her face, nodding sadly.
“Yes, I imagine you blame yourself, but do not. We cannot know why she did what she did, but it is quite unfair to blame the progeny in this case.” He gestured out the back window of the SUV. “At any rate, I advise you to fasten your seat belt.”
“Why?” Regan tried to turn enough to see out the back window. At first, all she saw was the light of the other headlights behind them, then she could pick out a pair weaving through traffic and closing with them quickly.
“Because, my dear,” Jeremiah said, latching lid to the blood collection with one hand, and pulling his seat belt over across himself with the other. “We’re about to get run off the road.”
“We’re what?” Rather than buckling in, Regan pushed up to look out the window again. The passing lights from the street lamps flashed over the top of the delivery truck closing with them. There was no doubt it was following them, and closing quickly. “What makes you think they’re going run us off the road?”
Jeremiah shrugged. “It’s Tuesday."
Regan stared at him. “And?”
She did not have a chance to ask more questions. Sharp cracks sounded on the driver side of the SUV as the van pulled alongside. The bright muzzle flashes lit the windows with yellow light. Instinctively Regan ducked forward and covered her head.
Jeremiah took another drink of blood, emptying the glass. “The vehicle is bulletproof.”
Suddenly the car shifted to the side, the rear end beginning to fishtail left to right in rapid motion. “The tires, however, are not.” The dark silhouette of the van dropped away as it slowed, leaving plenty of room for the SUV to sway on its destroyed tires. It took a hard swerve to the left, then back to the right where it slammed into the retaining wall along the concrete canyon. Jeremiah released his seatbelt and reached across the cabin to open the wood panelling. A variety of weapons were displayed, neatly arranged for maximum use of the space. Everything from Japanese samurai swords to modern assault rifles was represented.
“They will be upon us in a moment. You should arm yourself.” He took the assault rifle and deftly slipped a clip of ammunition into it. “I for one would prefer not to remain here and wait idly for them to come finish their work.”
Regan eyed the cabinet. She had no training in the use of any of those weapons. She watched a lot of crime dramas, sure, and had gone to a shooting range with her dad once. Sadly the classic twenty-two bolt action was conspicuously absent. Still, could she just sit here?
Our story continues into The Chapter 6 Addendum
Our heroine has reached a crossroads, dear readers. What shall she do?
It should be noted that here was a singular vote at the facebook page as of 6pm edt making the popular choice "Take up the silver plated pistol" with 5 out of 10 votes.