Days went by, each harder than the last. All Quinn could think about was the game. She was on edge. Her blood screamed and her skin itched. Everyone around her was just noise. A cacophony of ignorant people who didn’t understand what this meant to her. Save on – her roommate.
Indeed, Kaye had definitely been noticing more and more the nonchalant and unconcerned look that her friend normally had was gone. It was replaced by excitement, anticipation. Still recovering from her injury, the bruise slowly getting lighter. There was something so odd about the look Quinn had. Shorter than her by a decent amount, so thin and pale, lanky and nonthreatening to people. Yet that look in her eye was unmistakable. A predator, getting ready for the hunt.
Lisa was much more aloof to things. Ever in her studies, she liked that the two roommates were being nicer to each other again, as their fighting had been upsetting her. The kind of person who didn’t want people to be mad at each other, and everyone to treat each other right. As one would expect from a Hispanic family, she was a very spiritual person. She took the faith of the school very seriously, and was always very driven to do everything she could to be a good Catholic.
The big elephant in the room was the fact that Quinn was not spiritual person. At all. Given that she went to a Catholic school, she took to being careful about the subject matter with whoever she ended up talking to. Like so many other things in her life, it was a topic that was off-limits. Sometimes, it felt like she couldn’t be honest with people about anything. Lied about her gambling habits. Lied about her spiritual beliefs. Everywhere she looked, it was more and more lies. It was exhausting.
A couple nights before the game, she was sitting on the floor of her dorm room, playing cards against herself. Texas Hold ‘Em. That was the game that was happening, and she needed to get into the right mindset. Kaye was watching, saying very little. As her roommate had warned her, once she was in the game, that was it. There was nothing else.
A thought came to her. “Hey Quinn?”
Without looking up. “Hm?”
“Do you believe in God?”
Coughing, she looked up. “Where the hell did that come from?”
“Nowhere. Just curious. I mean, you’re here at this school, but you don’t wear a cross or do any of the activities in the Church. I was wondering.”
Leaning back against her bed, she let out a breath. She’d come this far letting her new companion know about her. One person in all her world that she could be honest with. Why not be honest about this?
“No, I don’t. The whole thing feels really stupid to me. I mean, the idea of a wizard in the sky who magicked everything into existence. Who buys that shit? We’re not five anymore. I don’t believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. I don’t believe in the Sky Wizard, either.”
Kaye nodded, taking it in.
“What about you? You believe all this?”
Her eyes went wide. “Holy shit.”
“I think this is the first time you’ve asked me anything.”
Quinn’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean? Like today?”
She thought for a moment. Was she right? Did that signify something had changed?
“Yeah. I guess. So, do you believe in God?”
Now the ball was in Kaye’s court. She looked out the window, at the rainy evening sky.
“I don’t know. Like, sometimes I think I do. It’s nice to believe in all that. Whole idea that everything happens for a reason and we’re not all just floating around doing whatever. But then I think about what you said. It seems like something you believe as a kid, then don’t believe as you grow up. I’m not sure what I believe.”
Her roommate smiled at her. “Well, you’re pretty smart. You’ll figure out what you believe eventually.”
Smiling back. “Thanks, Quinn.”
Finally, the night arrived. Once it was lights-out, she got out of bed and dressed silently. Kaye did the same. Opening the door a little, she listened for the Sister patrolling the halls to pass by.
“Stick to the carpet and move when I move! Stop when I stop. You’re crazy fit, so I know you won’t have trouble keeping up.”
“Maybe you’ll have to keep up with me,” she whispered back.
Quinn gave her an ugly look. “Not all of us are sports nuts. Come on.”
That got a wink. They were off. Moving quickly down the hall. They got the stairs. Quinn propped herself on the railing and slid down. The landing wasn’t nearly as graceful as she was hoping, so as to impress her companion, but it showed her the way. As if to make her jealous, Kaye stuck the landing no problem, giving her a smug look of satisfaction.
She just rolled her eyes.
“You know it!”
They headed toward the hallway that was her escape route. Making good time, eventually something had to go wrong. A noise! Kaye looked back to see one of the Sisters coming their way! Grabbing Quinn’s arm, she pulled her into the nearest open door.
“What are you…?!”
Inside were two girls, sleeping. One was snoring, the other was just gone. They stood against the door, hearing the approaching footsteps. Both of them right next to each other, the only sound was their hearts pounding. The steps were right there! Just then, mercy. They turned away, starting back the other direction.
Silently, both of them started cracking up. As if all the tension in the world was just deflated. Quinn leaned against her, glad to have someone taller than her right now. Felt good. A rock on which to stand, as one would say. A very Catholic sentiment.
“We’ve gotta go!” she whispered.
Poking her head out the door, they verified that the Sister had gone, silently closed the door, and then took off toward the window. Now was the best time. Using at trick she had learned to pull the latch without opening it, she slid out. Kaye followed behind. Once through, she closed the window, hearing the click. Now they were outside, in her element. The night air was cooler now. Fall had taken hold. Moving with a purpose, they got to the tree she used to escape.
“Alright, wait for me to go first before you make your way up. See that big branch up there? The one going right above the fence? That’s your guy. The branch can hold either of us, but not at the same time. I’ll show you how, and then you come to me. Cool?”
“Yeah. Lead the way.”
Possessed with the desire to get to her destination quickly, she scaled the tree like a monkey and then made her way to the end of the branch. She jumped across. No matter how many time she did it, that little moment in the air always gave her chills. Maybe it’s because of the metal fence beneath with the top like spikes.
Kaye came up quickly behind, while Quinn descended the other tree. As she looked up, once she got to the bottom, it didn’t surprise her that Kaye had already made the jump. Athletic girl. She didn’t want to admit it, but she was jealous.
“That was fun!” her roommate whispered, grabbing on to her, breathing just a little heavy. Guess that feeling got to her too.
“Yeah. Come on! I’ll take you to my safehouse, and our ride.”
Quinn got a dark look. “You’re gonna love this!”
She couldn’t quite believe her eyes when she saw the dilapidated house that Quinn took her to. A wooden porch, with the finish worn off. Ceiling tiles that were covered in mold. More and more, it looked liked this place was going to become part of the woods. The windows were cracked. Inside was like something out of a horror movie. Old chairs, furniture, faded curtains that were in tatters in the window. It was ominous, to say the least.
“What’s the deal with this place?” she asked.
“A grisly murder happened here, a bunch of years back. There was no one to claim the property of the couple that died in here, and the bank couldn’t get any buyers because of the reputation of the place. Eventually they just gave up. Now it’s the ultimate fixer-upper opportunity, assuming anyone actually knows that this place still exists.”
That last bit caught her attention. “How did you find out about it?”
“Read the article in the paper on microfiche a year back. It was scary. Decided I’d do a little exploring and see if the place was still around. It was. Road was so faded, it was clear nobody came here anymore. Figured it would be a good safehouse.”
Quinn pulled up the cut floorboards, pulling them out. Inside was her lockbox. The key hung around her neck, always. With this amount of money, she didn’t trust ANYONE with this key but herself. Inside, there were stacks of cash.
“Holy guacamole! How much money is in there?!”
Without having to look. “$110,000.”
Kaye gasped, “you can’t be serious! How did you earn that much money?!”
She looked her right in the eye. “Because I am that good a gambler. As you’re gonna see tonight. But we have to move. The game has to be starting soon, and I want to be there before the first buy-in.”
“How will we get into town that fast? Walking would take a while.”
“That’s the other thing I wanted to show you,” Quinn replied with a wink.
Coming into the garage, she pointed to her dirt bike. Make sure she had enough fuel in it, she grabbed her helmet. Now she had to factor in that she only had one. Well, best to look after her guest.
“Here, put this on.”
“Where did you get a dirt bike?!”
“Have I mentioned I’m a good gambler?” It was hard not to keep the smirk out of her voice.
“For real.” She put on the helmet. “Alright, let’s go! Wait, you have a helmet too, right?”
She shook her head. “Nope. Guess we’re gonna have to be careful, now aren’t we?”
Kaye’s expression got concerned. “Don’t take risks with your life, Quinn! I’m serious!”
“Relax. I know what I’m doing. Trust me.”
Those words struck her, and she nodded. “Okay. Be careful.”
The garage door opened, and the two led the bike out. Quinn got on first, with Kaye behind. She wrapped her arms around her roommate’s stomach. That got another jolt of butterflies.
Hitting the ignition, the two bolted. Kaye was visibly shaken, but quickly got into the rhythm, as it was clear Quinn knew what she was doing. Down the wooded road they went. The ominous darkness seemed to be closing in. Then it opened up and they could see the ocean in front of them. Moonlight was shining down.
“Wow…” Kaye gasped.
“I know, right? The drive there is pretty great. At least when it isn’t raining.”
Heading into the city, they kept to her usual route to avoid beat cop patrol routes. Finally, they arrived. In more of a rush than ever, Quinn raced to chain up her bike and then at the door. Nearly out of breath from all the exertion, she pounded on the door.
The front part opened, and a man looked out at her.
“Have you heard about the crabbing?”
She rolled her eyes. “I heard it was pretty damn dry. Now can you PLEASE let me in?! I need to make it to the Bank before the first buy-in!”
He looked over at Kaye. “Who’s this?”
“A friend! Came to watch me play. Now are you going to open the fucking door or not?!”
The man groaned, then opened it.
Quinn nearly ran inside.
Kaye walked in, looking sheepish at the giant of a man. “Sorry. She’s in a hurry.”
“She’s a strange girl. Best keep up with her. She’s gonna leave you behind.”
Seeing how far ahead she was, Kaye nodded and ran over.
Nearly charging past people, Quinn got to the Bank.
“Has the game started?! Is there still time for the first buy-in?!”
Looking visibly shocked, the man at the Bank nodded. “You’re right on time, Red. The game is just about to get underway.”
“Fantastic! I know the buy-in amount already. $17,000 so the house can take their cut?”
“That will suffice,” he replied, taking her stacks of cash.
Kaye was still in awe of that much money. “That’s so much money!”
She looked over at her roommate. “Wait ’til you see how much I leave with!”
The Bank gave her a plaque for $15,000. “Good luck tonight, Red.”
She smirked at him, finally catching her breath. “No luck needed.” Turning to Kaye. “Time to get to work.”
Seeing her friend’s excitement, she couldn’t help but feel it too. This was what she came for.
The room where the game was held looked especially auspicious tonight. The people gathered for this game weren’t like the last. No sunglasses players tonight. Men and women who all looked to have their A-game.
She immediately caught sight of her mentor.
“Dutch!” she called out.
“You made it! Was beginning to worry.” He caught sight of Kaye. “Hello there. And who might you be?”
Realizing it was best to not say anything about where they knew each other from, Kaye replied, “just a friend of hers.”
“Yup. She asked if she could see me play. I said sure.”
Holding out his hand. “Well, any friend of Red’s is a friend of mine. I’m Duke. Her unofficial advisor.”
“Nice to meet you.”
She handed the plaque to the dealer.
He nodded to her. “Ah, good to see you, Red. I had a feeling a game of this size wouldn’t be something you’d miss.”
“Alright, here are you chips. Good luck tonight.”
Taking a deep breath, Quinn prepared herself for what was coming. Time to check in with her mentor.
He stood at the periphery, chatting Kaye up. She’d be safe with him.
“So, who do we have tonight?” she asked.
He motioned for them to take some space. “Like I said earlier, we have some sharks tonight. See that lady over there?” Pointing to a rather gorgeous blonde woman. “That’s Donna Simmons. She was a professional player until she was kicked out for running the table at Atlantic City. Everyone suspected her of cheating, but nobody could prove it.” Motioning over to a black man with a well-maintained beard. “He’s Stephen Sylvester. Odd fellow, but Lady Luck loves him something fierce. He wins hands out of nowhere. Someone to watch out for.” His gaze went to a Japanese man in a business suit. “Hiroyoshi Ayato. This dude’s been all over the place. But he comes here once a year to clean house. The fact that he’s at a game with this many sharks is just his bad luck.” Then there was an older woman. “Lastly, we have Eleanor Brixby. That old broad makes everyone think she’s all cookies and puzzles because of her demeanor. Don’t buy it for one moment! That woman is cold as steel and isn’t fucking around. You got your work cut out for ya, kid.”
Quinn’s smile was a mile wide. “I couldn’t have asked for more.”
“Ladies, gentlemen, let us please begin tonight’s game,” the Dealer announced.
Leaning in to Kaye. “Stay with Duke. He’ll keep you safe.”
“I will. Kick ass tonight!”
“No good luck?”
“You said you don’t need it,” she replied.
More and more, Quinn was liking this girl.
Everyone took their seats at the table. The blonde and the black man with the trimmed beard gave her looks or incredulity. However, the one who spoke first was Eleanor.
“Well ain’t this something!” Her accent was midwestern. “It’s so nice to see kids these days who apply themselves.”
True to what Duke said, she could see in the old lady’s eyes that while her tone and demeanor was positive, behind that was a vicious hunter, eyeing up potential prey.
“Thanks.” she replied.
“Well good luck tonight, little lady. I’ll keep my eye on you.”
That goes without saying, Quinn thought.
The Dealer stepped forward. “Greetings everyone. Tonight’s game is going to be Texas Hold ‘Em. Joker’s wild. There buy-in amount is $15,000, with a chance to buy your way back in at $10,000. Good luck.”
First couple hands were about learning who she was up against. It meant she would likely lose some money, but that’s fine. Once she got the measure of her competition, it would come back, with friends. First thing that was clear was Stephen was going to go down first. He was alright, but took risks. They were calculated risks, but not ones that he could come back from against the people he was up against. His first big run was on a three of a kind, but Hideyoshi called his bluff and sunk him for almost $1,000. Quinn knew to fold fast on that hand. It wasn’t a smart play, and HIdeyoshi was good. Donna was going to be the next to fall. Also skilled, but it was clear she wasn’t taking this as serious as the other four.
Hideyoshi was a brick wall. This dude was nigh-impossible to read. His Japanese professional expression, hardened by years of talking to important people without showing any emotion, was an almost perfect poker face. It was only after a couple hands that she noticed the slightest tell of all time. It was a little twitch in a blood vessel on his temple. Nobody else would be looking for it.
Which brought her to Eleanor. This was her challenge. If the rest of these people were blue sharks, she was tiger. The entire crowd, aside from Hideyoshi, wasn’t taking her seriously. It was to their own detriment. Just like Quinn, she played cautiously at first. Getting the lay of the land. She also could tell who her biggest threats were. The woman hardly took her eyes off Quinn through the course of the game. Both were trying to find a tell on the other. For the moment, it didn’t look like either could.
A play game along where Quinn decided to push this woman, to see what she was worth. The Flop had a Joker, a Three of Clubs, and a Three of Diamonds. Three of a kind was already on the board. Now the question was – who could make the most of it? Quinn made her move. Opening strong, $500. Donna called. Stephen called. Hideyoshi folded. Then it came to Eleanor. She raised her $500. Quinn called.
The turn put down an Ace of Hearts. Quinn checked. Eleanor looked right at her. That syrup-y sweet and totally genuine (to the unobservant) look on her face never leaving.
“Oh dear. That’s a tricky one. I’ll put down for $250.”
The game was on. The older woman and the teenage girl were looking right at each other. Who would blink first?
That’s when she saw it! The woman’s flipped a chip in her hand. It wasn’t something big. Players do that stuff all the time. But the timing of it was suspicious. Flipped it again, then stopped. Finally, the river. A Four of Diamonds.
Quinn’s expression didn’t change to even the slightest degree. Looking at the cards, then down at her own, she mathematically had this one. The chances of her opponent outdoing her were slim. Time to see if that tell was something, or nothing.
Donna had Three of a Kind, Threes. Stephen and Hideyoshi had folded. Now it was the two. Eleanor had a Full House, Three over f=Four. Quinn put down her cards. Full house, Three over Aces. Finally, she had drawn first blood.
At the periphery of the game, Kaye watched in awe with Duke. It was true, Quinn was a master of this game. Seemed the mentor was impressed too.
“Girl’s good. But this is gonna get ugly when it’s just the two of them,” he whispered to her.
“You sure it’s gonna be those two at the end?”
“Not a doubt in my mind. There might as well be nobody else there now.”
Two hours later, and the first of their number folded. As expected, it was Stephen. He got lucky a couple times, but Eleanor was able to bait him. It was interesting. Her strategy seemed to be to work to bait Stephen on the points when Quinn would have done so, snaking his winnings in the process. Very clever.
Donna went down about half an hour later. This time, Quinn was fighting back to get the bulk of her money. Hideyoshi also seemed to be making a move, which she used against Eleanor by knowing his tell to be able to see when he had something good, and keeping the older woman focused on her. Then, after baiting her in, she’d fold. It meant losing some money, but he’d get some of hers. She knew the strategy couldn’t work long-term, but in the short term she was keeping the winnings firmly divided up between the three of them.
Now that the two weakest of the bunch were taken out, it was time to eliminate Hideyoshi. His strategy had been to play it slow and steady. The idea being to whittle his opponents down. For a game of five, that made sense. Now that it was three, things got stickier. Eleanor was looking to bring back the strategy she used on Stephen, but he wasn’t biting. Quinn had her own thoughts. As he was to her left, and the betting went clockwise from the Dealer, that meant that he was before her. So every time he would call or put down an amount, she’d raise him just a little bit. Enough to pique his interest. Just $50 or $100. Nothing more. He kept looking over at her, trying to figure out her game. Especially since sometimes she would lose, but kept doing it.
Eleanor was also trying to figure her out. While her strategy wasn’t working, she had no idea what her chief competition was doing. Finally, she got a hand that was absolutely delicious. The turn put down an Ace, and Quinn bet big. Raise of $1,000. She could tell that Hideyoshi had something good. He couldn’t resist. Raised $1,500. Show-down. She got a Full House, Aces over Jacks. He had three of a kind, Queens. Now he had his targeting on her. That’s what she wanted. Eleanor could bait him all she liked, but it was her who was going to get the kill.
Another hour, and Hideyoshi played his last hand. It was a pretty epic moment. Eleanor decided she wanted to be the one to finish him. Take that pleasure away from Quinn. Thing was, she actually was okay with this. In fact, she preferred that her nemesis in this game take the victory. This was about studying her opponents, not to mention getting a breather. The stress levels had been out of control.
Hideyoshi was sweating, as his chips were bleeding out. Finally, he went all-in. As expected, Eleanor destroyed him. So now the game was down to its last two. The Dealer called a break for half an hour.
Quinn got up, joining her companions. “I need a drink.”
“I ordered you a root beer, soon as he called a break.”
“You’re the best, Dutch.”
Kaye leaned in. “That is so tense! How are you holding up?”
“This woman’s good. Really, really good.”
“Met your match?” Dutch asked.
“Hell no! I can take her. I just have to play this really, really smart.”
Her roommate leaned in really close, whispering in her ear. “Kick her ass.”
Final stretch of the game. Now just the two of them. It was a clash of titans. Each time one was going at the other, and just as it looked like they would have the upper hand, they would pull a fake. Quinn expected this to be just one more hour. Instead, almost an hour and a half rolled by with no clear upper hands.
It was time to take a risk. A stupid, insane risk. Hand dealt, the flop, and it was nothing. A Two of Clubs, Jack of Diamonds, and Queen of Spades. Quinn decided to take a risk. She put down $1,000. Eleanor gave her the keenest, most vicious stare her kindly old facade could do without giving herself away. Everyone in the room was holding their breath. She called. The Turn, and it was a Four of Clubs. Again, Quinn bet big. $1,500. Eleanor was clearly desperate to see if there was something that could tell her if she was bluffing or not. Her facial expression betrayed nothing. At all. Mathematical odds were on this. The River, and it was a King of Hearts. This hand was absolutely nothing. So now the question became – in a do-nothing hand, who had the better cards? This time, Quinn checked. Time to see if she took the bait. Eleanor was staring kind old grandma daggers at her, for any kind of sign of what she was up against.
The old woman bet $2,500. It worked! Quinn called. Show-down. Eleanor had Two Pair, Jacks and Fours. Quinn put her cards down – Three of a Kind, Kings. The room was all letting out a breath. More drawing blood. Her opponent was reeling. Had Quinn discovered something about her? Was she losing her edge? Doubt was seeping into her mind, and that was what her young opponent needed. It’s a formidable weapon, doubt. Just a little could sink any skilled player.
From there, things happened rapidly. The doubt Quinn so skillfully sewed into her enemy was eating at her. She’d look to make big plays, but then stop after staring the youthful enemy down. Her utter lack of any tells was eating away. Sometimes, with nothing at all, Quinn would step up and push the attack, only for her to either call or fold. It was brilliant.
The final hand came. It was clear that Eleanor was getting tired of this game. Truth be told, so was Quinn. It had gone on for over five hours, and dawn was coming. The older woman made her move. Putting down $1,000 as her opening bet. Looking at her cards, the teen girl raised $1,000. The Flop had a Three of Spades, Five of Diamonds, and Jack of Hearts. Now the Turn, with a Two of Diamonds. Quinn opened with a bet of $1,500. Eleanor raised $2,000. The entire room was silent. You could hear a pin drop. Quinn raised $5,000. The River, a Three of Hearts. Eleanor’s bet. She put all-in. As she had significantly more money than the older woman did, and she just wanted to be a bitch to her, Quinn put only as much as Eleanor had put in, still keeping some of her chips.
The charming old woman facade dropped long enough for this lady to look like she wanted to murder Quinn with a spoon.
Eleanor put her cards on the table. Three of a kind – Threes. Quinn smiled at her, flipping over her cards. Straight, Two to a Joker, which was wild for Six.
Everyone clapped. This had been on HELL of a game. Leaning back in her chair, Quinn let out a sigh. What a night. Just then, the old woman stood up, and smiled at her.
“Well done, young lady. I haven’t had a challenge like this since I was about your age.”
For the first time, she could tell that this woman was being genuine.
“Thanks. You were one hell of an opponent.”
They shook hands, and the lady made to leave.
Walking over to where her compatriots stood, Dutch clapped an arm around her shoulder.
“That was amazing, kiddo! I haven’t seen a room full of people so quiet like that in ages! You know, I hear people talk a lot about you when you aren’t here. There will be smaller games going on, and you have everyone being thankful you didn’t shop up. Pretty soon, you’re gonna scare away the competition.” He chuckled.
While there was a joke there, part of Quinn did ponder on that. If that did happen, what would she do? Never mind. Problems for another day. Now she had winnings to collect.
Kaye also put an arm around her. “You were awesome! I’ve never seen anything like it!”
“Yeah. But it’s time for us to get home. The sun has to be coming up soon, if it isn’t already.” Looking to Dutch. “Keep up on when the next big game is, yeah?”
“You got it! Let me know how to drop you line and I’ll keep you up to date on all the games and what looks good.”
“Cool.” She put an arm around Kaye as well. “Let’s go home.”
“Heck yeah!” Kaye’s reluctance to swear was kind of adorable.
As they walked out, and Quinn gave her the total winnings, over $85,000 as Donna had bought her way back in. Getting the cash deposits, they made their way toward the door. At the back of the room, sitting at a Blackjack table, there was a young man. He looked to be about 18, with jet-black hair that was quite short. He work a black and blue jacket, with jeans. Underneath was a tanktop. He scratched an itch on his shoulder. It was where a burn mark was, in the shape of a trident.
“Quinn. I finally found you.”
End of Act I
Until next time, a quote,
“But honestly, the twenty-one minutes I spend here, all down-time. Nothing more. Time spent waiting to go back to the search.” – Heartman, Death Stranding